When a ‘Democracy Expert’ Shows His Cards

(Larry Downing/Reuters)
Norman Ornstein’s tweet about how to help Democrats cement power might have been a bad joke — but it was revealing.

Many prominent Trump opponents have centered their message on a defense of “democracy.” It’s easy to suspect that such appeals reflect little true commitment to democratic norms but are rather a pretense to weaponize the concept of democracy against a political opponent. Still some, especially in the foreign-policy community, have leveraged entire careers as “democracy experts” to legitimize such attacks.

In a moment of glee after Joe Biden gained a lead, one of these democracy experts let his mask slip as he was “brainstorming” how to secure Democratic power.

Norman Ornstein built his career around the concept of democracy. He’s written frequently on the topic for the Washington Post and the Atlantic and for scholarly publications, sits on the board of the non-profit Foundation for the Future of Democracy, and co-directs the joint AEI-Brookings Electoral Reform Project. He is firmly in the community of “democracy experts” who have used their work on the topic, and related institutional affiliations, to claim moral authority as arbiters of democratic norms.

On Friday, the AEI scholar tweeted, “Just brainstorming here; what if Biden went to Richard Burr, told him that there would be no further action on the insider trading charges, and offers him CIA? The vacancy in the Senate would be filled by Roy Cooper. Democrat Roy Cooper.”

After a backlash, Ornstein deleted the inflammatory remark — playing it off as a joke. He said he was being “facetious” and later counseled himself, also on Twitter, to “be less flippant.”

While our society today is often too willing to jump on minor mistakes and careless social media slip-ups, some errors — even unguarded jokes, if that’s what this was — reveal deeper traits.

Warren Buffett famously quipped, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”

Democracy depends on mutual acceptance of norms that may only come into play in high-stake conflicts, meaning the “credit” of key participants indeed becomes crucial. While many in the political world focus on ideas or actions that do not depend on such credibility, some — notably judges — build their status on a reputation for neutrality and a willingness to put laws and ideals ahead of their own interests. Those who position themselves as authorities on democracy likewise fall into this category.

But such arbiters of democracy can also use this power to bestow an appearance of legitimacy on corrupt actions.

Regarding Ornstein’s Burr tweet, not only would such an action be illegal, it would be a gross violation of democratic norms in one of the highest-stakes matters any country can face: the solidification of single-party rule across the presidency and both houses of Congress. Formal legal checks on such a move would be limited. The investigative bodies that could prosecute it, in the Justice Department and Congress, would fall under the control of the regime empowered by this move. Popular uproar — or acquiescence — would become a deciding factor in its success. (Though in this case Ornstein’s idea would have been a dud, as North Carolina requires a replacement from the same party, as he later acknowledged.)

Still, when someone carelessly floats the idea of discarding his principles when the chips are down, we should believe him. Ornstein did not slip up on a matter tangential to his work — say an off-color wisecrack or politically incorrect opinion. He proposed a gross violation of the democratic norms he has built his reputation around. Like an admission that a judge would favor his own self-interest, this is not an error that can be swept aside.

Many who build reputations as democracy experts sincerely believe in democratic ideals and would indeed put these ideals before their personal preferences. But some would not. As pundits and scholars have increasingly centered their criticism of Trump on purported violations of such ideals, the concept of democracy itself faces growing politicization. Now, as these anti-Trump figures believe the tables have turned, some are revealing their true colors — advocating a range of undemocratic measures, from political blacklists to Ornstein’s trade-off.

If true advocates of democracy are to preserve their own credibility — and that of democracy itself — they must swiftly censure those who claim to defend democracy but make clear they would endorse actions antithetical to its ideals.


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