On Eroding Democratic Norms

The Constitution is a well-crafted document, but its power comes from the reverence we pay it; our democracy is dependent on democratic norms, such as respect for constitutional procedures, rule of law, and trust in the basic fairness of the system. Undermining that trust erodes the very foundation of our government.

The founding fathers recognized the importance of these norms. While they devised a system based on the premise that human nature is corruptible and that men were naturally self-serving and ambitious, they also believed that those who represent the people will be of superior character. “If we consider the situation of the men on whom the free suffrages of their fellow-citizens may confer the representative trust, we shall find it involving every security which can be devised or desired for their fidelity to their constituents,” wrote James Madison in Federalist 57. Madison adds, “In the first place, as they will have been distinguished by the preference of their fellow-citizens, we are to presume that in general they will be somewhat distinguished also by those qualities which entitle them to it, and which promise a sincere and scrupulous regard to the nature of their engagements.”

And since the founding, presidents of the United States have paid homage to the necessity of respect for law, the values espoused in the Declaration of Independence, and the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights. Additionally, modern presidents have made pains to get facts straight, even when using those facts to spin a narrative supporting controversial policy positions. Democratic norms and facts have mattered—at least the espousal of facts and norms have mattered.

President Trump has taken a noticeable departure from this standard, as far as I can tell. He has avowed that the media is the enemy of the people, contradicting the long-held position among American leaders that a free press is a necessary staple of a healthy democracy. He has made irrefutably erroneous statements speaking as the head of state that he has not corrected, and his press secretary has seemingly renounced the goal of fact checking, in favor of supporting the non-factual statements of the President.

This behavior has eroded our democratic norms and principles in the short period of President Trump’s tenure so far, and if continued, could possibly create irreparable damage.

It is common to oppose presidents for their policy positions, or distortion of facts, or on ideological principles while sharing a basic agreement on the norms of democracy, debate, and facts. It is uncommon to take issue with a sitting president’s commitment to basic American values. Even when opponents of George W. Bush (during debates about the Patriot Act) or opponents of Barack Obama (in light of health care reform) challenged the sitting president’s basic commitment to American values, the response of those presidents recognized the concerns of opponents and reaffirmed, at least rhetorically, the administration’s commitments to our democratic principles. Obama, Bush, and every modern president before them (with the possible exception of Nixon in his most dark times before resignation) recognized the legitimacy of the press and of the opposition, both within and outside of government. All of the modern presidents spoke of the great contributions of immigrants and of the value of tolerance toward others. All of the modern presidents before Donald Trump paid homage to the international community of nations, with respect for other cultures and with a commitment to international leadership.

The 2016 presidential election was far too close for anyone to claim a mandate from the electorate. The nation appeared not only closely divided, but deeply divided, as evidenced by the protests both in favor of the new president and against the new administration almost immediately. The size of the Women’s March on the weekend after the inauguration is a case in point, demonstrating the concern within the American public, and the protests following the President’s travel ban is another example of the unease.

Further concern can be measured by the historically low approval ratings that President Trump had in his first weeks in office. Gallup’s numbers show that most citizens feel “strongly” in their approval or disapproval of the new president, with 41 percent in late February expressing “Strong disapproval” of the way the President is handling his job.

We should all be concerned about such low approval ratings; these are not simply a concern of the Trump White House, but rather a deeper reflection on the angst in the American citizenry.

Republicans and Democrats in leadership positions need to resist the siren call for partisan battle and join in the common defense of basic democratic norms. There is absolutely nothing wrong with partisan battles, but they must be conducted within the framework of democratic principles, with shared facts and basic norms of tolerance and respect of opposition points of view.