Norms, Fighting Fairly, and Progress

Eric Levitz makes a very good point about norms and governing (boldface mine):

Let’s say Chuck Schumer becomes Senate Majority Leader next year. If restoring norms is the paramount objective, then he will have to implore his caucus to confirm any conventionally qualified judicial nominees that the president puts forward; if combating runaway corporate power is the first priority, however, he’ll need to have those nominations killed in committee, to keep seats open for future, pro-labor judges. Similarly, if Democrats secure full control in 2020 (or 2024, or 2028), abolishing the filibuster will almost certainly be a prerequisite for any major redistributive reform. And if Trump is able to appoint multiple Supreme Court justices — and a “neo-Lochner era” commences, with the court’s far-right majority routinely vetoing landmark progressive legislation (as it came within one vote of doing to the Affordable Care Act) — then it will be very important for progressives to know whether norm-erosion or economic inequality is the more fundamental threat to their democracy….

Now, one could accept all the left’s claims about contemporary capitalism’s incompatibility with democracy, and still see Trump’s assault on democratic norms as the more pressing threat to our republic. After all, some norms really are more fundamental to liberal democracy than any policy on a social democrat’s wish list: Prohibitions against elected officials disputing the integrity of election results, encouraging political violence, or directing law enforcement to police dissent are more indispensable to self-rule than labor-law reform or universal health care…

But it does not follow from this point that champions of democracy should concentrate their energies on defending the former, rather than organizing for the latter. The democracy movement’s prescription may be the proper one for a moment of acute democratic crisis. The day that the president turns the Ritz-Carlton D.C. into a makeshift prison for #Resistance and NeverTrump intellectuals; or announces the postponement of the midterm elections; or indefinitely detains Robert Mueller as a suspected terrorist will be a day for grand coalitions in defense of our constitutional order. But outside of such a context, it is difficult to imagine — merely as a practical matter — how a mass movement could be mobilized in defense of something as abstract as procedural norms. Generally speaking, ordinary Americans are more concerned with how to make their wages cover their bills than how to force Mitch McConnell to allow a vote on legislation protecting the independence of the special counsel.

This reality is reflected in the Democratic Party’s midterm strategy. Democratic candidates seeking election in contested House districts are talking far more about the GOP’s assault on Medicaid, than Donald Trump’s attacks on Robert Mueller. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is no socialist vanguard; it is not instructing its candidates to focus their fire on economic injustice — instead of norm violations — because it wishes to lay the foundations for a movement that can challenge capitalism. It is doing so because it wants Democrats to win control of the House. Thus, whether one’s primary objective is to safeguard our constitutional order against Trump in the near term — or to make our economic system more compatible with democracy in the long run — the left’s organizing strategy remains more viable: An opposition movement centered on a a call for progressive economic change is bound to be more formidable than one based on a nonideological commitment to procedural norms.

One problem is that centrists, defined rather broadly, usually view themselves as non-ideological, even though their centrism is an ideology. This myopia leads them to conclude that they aren’t the ones who have to compromise ideologically in order to stop Il Trumpe. Democrats need to win elections, and promising to return to an era where 47% of Americans couldn’t meet a $400 emergency expense isn’t going to get it done.

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1 Response to Norms, Fighting Fairly, and Progress

  1. Bern says:

    This is good and should be a recurring theme. And if we need a manifesto, here’s a pretty good place to start – James Kwak’s 27 Words – :
    “All people need a few basic things:
    • An education
    • A job
    • A place to live
    • Health care
    • A decent retirement
    Let’s make sure everyone has these things.”

    I would add: Decent Food, but otherwise I think he’s covered it. I will be asking every candidate what they propose to do about each of these unmet needs, and not taking brushoffs for answers.

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