Friday, June 15, 2018

Killing Me Politely With His Norms

Last Sunday's Doonesbury was appalling.  Embarrassing.  Repellent... I'm trying to find the right epithet, but you get the idea.  I've been trying to find a way to read it as sarcasm, but can't find a handhold.  "Did I mention that I was polite?" would give it away if it were the Onion, but Trudeau's not the Onion.  The same applies to the way Norm appears as a Rainbow Coalition parade of Diverse faces; could Trudeau be referring to the Obama campaign video featuring multicolored celebrity dreamers?  If only.  No, Trudeau's been hammering a pretty solid DNC beat since Trump became president, as subtle as a MAGA hat.

I thought that Corey Robin had posted a tweet to the effect that norms are conservative, in intention and function.  Which is not always a bad thing.  But I can't find it now.  I did, while looking, find this article by Robin at Jacobin, in which he invites the reader to imagine
that it’s 2020, and Sanders is elected with a somewhat radicalized Democratic Party in Congress. Or if that’s too much to swallow, imagine some version of that (not necessarily Sanders or the Democrats but an empowered electoral left) in 2024. Or a realignment of the sort the US saw in 1932. Realignments always involve a contestation over norms; realignments change norms; realignments erode norms. And all of these counsels against norm erosion and polarization — which many people in the media and academia are invoking against Trump and the GOP — will now come rushing back at the Left.

And how could they not? When you set up “norms” as your standard, without evaluating their specific democratic valence in each instance, the projects to which they are attached, how could you know whether a norm contributes to democracy, in the substantive or procedural sense, or detracts from it? How could you know whether the erosion is good or bad, democratic or antidemocratic?
As I've said before, it's not enough to stand by your principles: first you have to have good ones.  Norms gave us the 3/5 clause of the Constitution, the Fugitive Slave Act, the expulsion of Indians from their land, the restriction of the franchise, right down to endless war, state surveillance of citizens, and so on and on.  The furious protests of pundits and politicians, liberal and conservative alike, that Trump's behavior on this or that issue is unprecedented, are in large part attempts to deny the norms that characterize this country by denying history.