Sunday, May 6, 2018

Politics Since the End of the Cold War

Jedediah Purdy notes that the recent wave of books about the "crisis of democracy" all focus on the defense of "norms":
One problem with identifying the protection of political norms with the defense of democracy is that such norms are intrinsically conservative (in a small-c sense) because they achieve stability by maintaining unspoken habits—which institutions you defer to, which policies you do not question, and so on. . . .

Even when norms do not lean to the right—for instance, the norm of honoring previous Supreme Court decisions is part of the reason the right to abortion established in Roe v. Wade has not been overturned—they are a depoliticized way of talking about political conflict. Norms are like the statues of dead leaders: you can’t know whether you are for or against them without knowing which values they support. The very idea that it would be possible to analyze political developments in terms of the decline of stabilizing, trans-partisan norms rather than substantive ideology is a political position. The underlying assumption of those who defend norms is that, at some very deep level, Americans have always agreed on the key issues, above all liberty and equality, and have just had to work out the kinks through the generations. That kind of thinking is a residue of the Cold War, when the quest for ideological legitimacy in the battle against communism led both parties to suppress their radical wings and converge on a common language of American principles and constitutional destiny.

The structural buttresses of that world have been crumbling since 1989, but it took a long time to fall. The year 2016 brought the first genuinely post–Cold War election: the perennial carnage of American capitalism, intensified by forty years of growing inequality, prepared the ground for Bernie Sanders’s socialism, while the nativism and racism that had slunk just outside respectable politics returned full-throated. What unifies the crisis-of-democracy genre is the failure to understand this, that the present moment is not an anomalous departure but rather a return to the baseline—to the historical norm, one might say.
Is this right? I mean, what about the 1960s? We have our problems now but the assassination of major public figures hasn't been one of them. But maybe the shadow of the Cold War did impress on the political system that the president had to be a "man of stature," someone who could sit at those all important summits without embarrassing us.

I do agree that extreme partisanship is not at all unusual in history; we had it in the 1850s and the 1930s. But perhaps those comparisons are not encouraging.

I end up back where I often do, thinking that the really important divide in America is between those who want some kind of radical shake-up and those who don't. I don't, so I would like polite discourse and compromise. But if I did I would probably say to hell with manners, let's start smashing things.


Shadow said...

I didn't find this essay particularly persuasive. Norms are not laws, as Trump has so vividly demonstrated. An interesting area to explore would be the nexus between norms and laws. When and why are some norms codified into law and others not?

I don't consider abortion (Rowe v. Wade) a norm. It's the law based on a judicial ruling and years of judicial precedence, but the social wars over abortion are too passionate to be calling abortion either a social pr political norm.

David said...

I haven't read the essay, but I don't find Purdy's arguments that you're describing here persuasive either. The "Cold War brought harmony" argument I find particularly thin. So far as I can tell, Americans have been bitterly divided for the last fifty years, and the issues haven't really changed during all that time, which includes the last twenty years of the Cold War. Further, again so far as I can tell, the idea of Cold War consensus largely reflects (a) the background impression of harmony created by 20 years of continuous prosperity post-WWII (itself a major and probably unrepeatable historical exception) and (b) a short period around 1960 when the commentariat was in love with the idea of "consensus."

I would agree with Purdy that deep social divisions and some level of social conflict are more the historical norm than people often admit. But if Purdy is suggesting that social division and conflict are mostly non-events, that's rubbish. I would argue that, for one thing, those divisions and conflicts are a major part of a society's life together; how a society handles them is a major part of what defines it. For another thing, some conflicts really do lead to major change, and it's pretty hard to tell in advance whether a given phase of conflict means crisis and major change, or just more conflict. Hostility, the cranky defense of privilege, and even rebellion were pretty common reactions to royal taxation in early modern Europe--but 1789 ended up being, you know, different.

David said...

Okay, I read the essay, and I was wrong: Purdy isn't saying that the current conflicts are a non-event. He is saying that some norms, like presidential dignity, aren't terribly important to the survival of democracy. He's essentially arguing against the fogey-ish, David Frum line that Trump is simply too vulgar to hold the office. Other norms are "really essential," especially accepting the legitimacy of electoral results. Purdy sees in Trump and the current Republican party a racialized rejection of the legitimacy of votes for Democrats (eg, the contention that Trump really won the popular vote).

Purdy in turn would like to see liberals challenge a different norm: the idea that democracy and "the versions of capitalism that have emerged in the last forty years" are compatible.