The Democratic Party's War on 'Norms'

March 20, 2019

Most Democrats think Donald Trump's presidency is a critical threat to American democracy. One oft-cited reason is Trump's reckless disregard for institutional "norms"—written and unwritten precedents that have long governed the way our democracy operates.

As one public intellectual recently said of Trump: "Violating norms is what he does." He still hasn't released his tax returns. He implied during the 2016 campaign that he wouldn't accept the results of the election if he lost. He declared a "national emergency" to fund his border wall.

Many of the norms Trump is accused of violating are behavioral, rather than structural. He watches too much television. He tweets like an angsty tween. He attacks the "fake news media," calls reporters "the enemy of people," and tried to revoke Jim Acosta's press credentials. He lashes out at deceased veterans, his employees' spouses, and the people investigating his administration. He tells lies the way a normal person does—without the dignified obfuscation and plausible deniability that have long governed the way our politicians are supposed to lie.

On the one hand, Democrats have made "restoring norms" a cornerstone of their campaign to remove Trump from office. On the other, the party's presidential hopefuls are rapidly lining up behind radical changes to long-established structural norms that they believe would help them enact their agendas. When it comes to seizing and holding power, Democrats appear all too ready to scuttle the norms that stand in their way.

Elizabeth Warren, for example, recently proposed eliminating the electoral college a centuries-old precedent—to boisterous applause. Other Democratic candidates have jumped on the bandwagon. Pete Buttigieg agreed: "It's gotta go." Beto O'Rourke said getting rid of the electoral college was "something that we should seriously consider." Former Attorney General Eric Holder is also on board, as is Washington Governor Jay Inslee.

It's not a new idea. It tends to happen when Democrats lose. It's what Al Gore supporters said back in 2008; same goes for Hillary Clinton supporters in 2016. They probably wouldn't be making the argument so loudly if Hillary had lost the popular vote. Only dark horse Democratic candidate Andrew Yang has defended the electoral college. Predictably, Yang was "dragged" and "dunked on" by aggrieved social media users making thoughtful rebuttals. For example:

What's more, for all the fuss about Trump's hypothetical refusal to accept the results of the election if he lost, Hillary continues to leave the door open to challenging the legitimacy of Trump's victory. Meanwhile, potential 2020 candidate Stacy Abrams insists she won the Georgia gubernatorial race. (She didn't.)

Then there's the issue of "court packing"—expanding the Supreme Court to make room for more liberals justices, premised on the idea that Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanuagh (and whoever Trump nominates to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg) were illegitimately installed. Warren, Buttigieg, and O'Rourke are open to the idea, as are Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand—Eric Holder, too, for what it's worth. Some Democrats are keen to see court packing become a litmus test issue for 2020 candidates.

The same goes for abolishing the filibuster in the Senate to ease the passage of legislation by simple majority. Democratic activists are especially enthusiastic about getting rid of the filibuster, because they (rightly) realize that as long as it remains in place, enacting transformative policies like the Green New Deal will be impossible.

Candidates who aren't senators, such as Buttigieg (Mayor of South Bend, Indiana) and Jay Inslee (Governor of Washington), are the most adamant about getting rid of the filibuster. Senators such as Kirsten Gillibrand are more skeptical. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is unlikely to embrace the idea.

But it's clear which side of the issue has the most enthusiasm. For example, the "Pod Save America" bros were pretty excited when Sen. Cory Booker softened his previous defense of the filibuster by saying "that door isn't closed" when it comes to abolishing the procedure.

These certainly aren't the only institutional norms and constitutional provisions Democrats would like to "update." The sorts of structural changes they are proposing would, it would seem, have far more significant consequences than Donald Trump's norm-violating "tone." But having a president who says nicer things about journalists won't give the Democratic Party more power than it already has.