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So, about American democracy

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David Frum has a piece in the Atlantic this week that represents the most recent round of old-school conservative hand-wringing about Donald Trump. Frum, who was cast out of the conservative mainstream in 2010 for writing that Republicans should have compromised with the Obama administration on health care, now frets that a number of other main "guardrails" of democracy have broken down. It's not clear whether he's arguing that the Trump candidacy is a result of this, or an indicator.

I don't necessarily disagree with the spirit of all of the conclusions in this piece — the ideas that tolerance, compromise, and policy expertise all have some place in a well-run republic are pretty hard to argue with. But some of his claims deserve deeper scrutiny and context.

First, the piece argues that the "guardrails" of democracy were mainly social norms about which candidates would be selected to run for president and how those candidates would behave. Norms of the (unspecified) past dictated that presidential candidates show some degree of humility, of trustworthiness, and of policy knowledge.

Frum isn't wrong that Trump isn't like other presidential candidates in these regards — or that he's not infrequently in violation of major social norms. But when it comes to expertise or personal qualities, it's not that candidates demonstrated these because they were supposed to.

The missing mechanism here is a step earlier, in the selection of candidates. And who selects candidates? Parties!

Parties — pre- and post-reform — have generally sought candidates they thought would be electable and capable of producing desired policies. The safe route to achieving this result would be to pick candidates who knew how to behave in public, who possessed conventional credentials, and who would be capable of getting votes. (Well, one out of three ain't bad.)

The good news is that some of the response to Trump — the boycotting of the convention by party elders, the remaining NeverTrump voices, the constant press — means that some social norms are probably still alive. The bad news is that there's clearly a gap in how well parties (at least the GOP, but I have my doubts that Democrats are impervious to a similar situation) can work to make sure their candidates follow these norms.

Where the piece really misses the mark is in a superficial treatment of anti-racism norms. Frum writes, "A deep belief in tolerance and non-discrimination for Americans of all faiths, creeds, and origins also once functioned as a guardrail against destructive politics." He then cites the 1980 Republican platform, a document produced in the same year that Ronald Reagan spoke about states' rights in a town where civil rights activists had been murdered 16 years earlier.

This isn't just about Republicans. The deeply racist past belongs to all of us. (And so, then, does the present.) Norms about politeness have long coexisted with structural and institutional racism. "New Democrat" Bill Clinton came to power with the help of black votes in the 1990s, and with votes from Democrats as well as Republicans he led the passage of welfare reform and crime bills that contributed to mass incarceration.

When we write about Trump's offensive language, we should treat it as a confirmation of the attitudes that have historically been the norm — not merely as a breach of superficial social norms.

Finally, the 1993 Wall Street Journal piece that Frum references in the guardrail metaphor betrays his theory of preservation and change. The older piece argues that the breakdown of social norms against violence could be traced to the anti-Vietnam movement and the permissive turn of the 1960s. The piece states:

These weaker or more vulnerable people, who in different ways must try to live along life's margins, are among the reasons that a society erects rules. They're guardrails. It's also true that we need to distinguish good rules from bad rules and periodically re-examine old rules.

Without getting into the specifics of the policies in question, I'm having a hard time figuring out how anyone could actually believe the first sentence is true, given our history of slavery and Jim Crow and voting restrictions on so many groups and reticence to enact things like child labor laws.

The kinds of destabilizing movements that "re-examine old rules" — like the labor movement that finally got children out of factories or the peaceful civil rights movement — are viewed positively in retrospect because they won. And they did so while many of the basic power structures remained in place.

The framework of radical change and disappearance of guardrails also neglects to identify the Trump phenomenon for what it is: in John Gerring's words (describing 19th-century Democrats), a radical preservationist movement. It doesn't so much call for change as it speaks to a desire to turn back the clock to a country with different economic policy and different demographics. It's right there in the slogan — "Make America Great Again."

The juxtaposition of preservation and the kind of change that Frum describes — the breakdown of political norms — provides a much larger clue about how American democracy has evolved than a laundry list of lapsed rules does. Different dimensions of democracy — acceptance of results even when we did not vote for them, that we apply rules evenly and consistently, that we offer all adult citizens the opportunity to participate in the process — clash at least as often as they reinforce each other.

The guardrails Frum describes — attention to national security and policy knowledge, equality and inclusion, loyalty to the nation — mean different things to different people, and they are all contested, moving targets. When we make changes to improve things, other aspects of the system often stay the same, leading to friction down the line.

The story of American democracy isn't one of norms and transgressions, of order and disintegration, or a beckoning green light we swim helplessly toward. It's one of many moving parts, including institutions that connect the public with its leaders. For one such institution — one of the major parties — to remain superficially intact while losing much of its real power may not be an immediate dire warning that democracy is falling apart. But it may be a clearer sign of instability than we've seen in some time.

Frum's piece rightly shows that democracy requires more than just voting. But let's not forget that norms don't just come and go; they take work to enforce. And we can't always take norms at face value — sometimes they hide deeper, more serious threats to the democratic values we claim to cherish.

This post is part of Mischiefs of Faction, an independent political science blog featuring reflections on the party system. See more Mischiefs of Faction posts here.

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