Democracy is a beautiful idea, but ours is crumbling. (More)

Democracy Crumbling Pt. I: Norms vs. Power

This week we give the Squirrel a few days off and put the resident faculty back to work for a series on Democracy Crumbling. Today we start with our eroding democratic norms. Tomorrow we’ll see how power can dominate over widely-shared ideas. Wednesday we’ll restore the importance of ideas by exploring the power of collective action.

“I think the American public will be comfortable with the information they have”

The number-cruchers found that, not surprisingly, the GOP’s ‘tax reform’ plan will be a bonanza for the super-rich while offering little or no help for the rest of us:

The tax reform “framework” proposed by the Trump administration and Republican leaders in Congress would give the largest benefits to the top 1 and top 0.1 percent of households, according to a new analysis by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. The poor and middle class would get comparatively little. And the whole thing would leave a $2.4 trillion hole in federal revenue in the first decade.

The richest 1 percent – households making at least $732,800 – would get an average tax cut of $129,030, the analysis finds. For the typical one-percenter (who earns much more than $732,800), that means 8.5 percent more income after taxes. The richest 0.1 percent, earning at least $3.4 million a year, would get $722,510 back on average, for a 10.2 percent average boost in after-tax income.

By contrast, the middle class (households earning $48,600 to $86,100 a year) would get $660 back, a 1.2 percent income boost. The poorest fifth of Americans, earning $25,000 or less, would only get $60, a 0.5 percent increase.

For the working poor, that’s just over a dollar a week. For middle class families, it’s about $12.50 per week. Worse, those figures don’t even try to calculate the losses in government services reduced or canceled due to that “$2.4-trillion hole in federal revenue.” The God-King and Republicans still haven’t agreed on a budget, but the budget cuts they’re planning could easily eat up much of that middle class family’s $660 per year tax savings, and the dollar a week tax savings for the working poor won’t begin to cover their loss of services.

Yesterday Speaker Paul Ryan admitted that the GOP’s plan won’t help all middle class and working poor families, but Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin insisted it won’t help the God-King at all:

“How are Americans going to know if the President gets this benefit if he doesn’t release his tax returns?” George Stephanopoulos asked Mnuchin on ABC News’ This Week, referring to part of the proposed policy that would cut taxes on certain high-earning businesses that currently pay individual rates.

“That’s just not fair, because, again, we haven’t published the rules as to what’s going to apply to the pass-through rates, so you’re making certain assumptions that I don’t think are correct,” Mnuchin replied.

“I wouldn’t need to make the assumptions if we had the President’s tax returns,” Stephanopoulos said. “The President himself has said publicly he’s not going to get a benefit from this tax plan. My question to you is, how are the American people going to know that if he’s not releasing his tax returns?”

“I think the American public will be comfortable with the information they have,” Mnuchin said. “We’re going to make sure that there’s the proper rules. There’s going to be full transparency, as we go through the legislative process, what those rules are so that rich people can’t take advantage of it.”

Note that Mnuchin did not say the God-King would release his federal income tax returns, so we can see for ourselves whether he benefits from his ‘tax reform’ plan. We’re supposed to just take his word for it.

“Isn’t there some kind of rule about this?”

Vox’s Sean Illing discussed that very issue with Fareed Zakaria in an interview about eroding democratic norms:

Illing: I think the crucial lesson of the Trump era is that democratic norms and customs are far more important than we imagined, and that institutions are perhaps less important than we thought.

Zakaria: I certainly agree with the first part, but I don’t know that I would draw that corollary. The revelation for me has been just how important norms are. To put it in a different way, so many of the things that we now recognize as central to liberal democracy are actually not institutions but norms, practices, and the articulation of certain values. And I think this is something we all began to realize over the course of the campaign as Trump would violate one norm after the other.

So he would simply refuse to release his tax returns. We start to look around thinking, “Wait a minute, isn’t there some kind of rule about this?” Well, it turns out, no. It was just a norm.

Zakaria is right. No law requires presidential candidates to release their tax returns. It’s a 40-plus-year tradition:

In 1973, while under audit and amid a controversy over his personal taxes, Nixon released returns dating back to when he took office in 1969. The scandal led to one of Nixon’s most famous quotes.

“People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook,” Nixon told reporters in November 1973. “Well, I am not a crook.”

Since Nixon, every president has released tax returns, except for Gerald Ford, who instead made public a decade’s worth of summary data about his federal taxes.

So had every major party presidential candidate. Until the God-King. He kept promising to release his returns, someday, when the audits were finished, although the audit did not prevent him from releasing his tax returns. But never did and he later declared that his Electoral College victory closed the issue.

In short, faced with a 40-year tradition of financial disclosure that both parties accepted as a norm of modern democracy … the God-King responded with raw power: “I won.”

“We’re starting to look like Latin America 40 years ago”

Zakaria notes that wasn’t the first or last time the God-King trampled on norms:

The way he treats journalists, the way he talks about news organizations, the way he intimidates people: All of this is corrosive of liberal democracy, but it’s perfectly legal.

And our media haven’t fully fathomed what that means, he says:

One of the mistakes we all make, and I put myself very much in this camp, is that we tried to analyze things that are tangible, things that can be codified, like judicial institutions or electoral systems. But norms aren’t tangible. This is one of the reasons we find it difficult to discuss culture in the social sciences; it’s this warm, amorphous, fuzzy concept. Yet it clearly plays an enormous role in human affairs, and I think that’s what we’re watching here. We’re learning that cultural norms, cultural behavior, is absolutely crucial to our process.
I didn’t realize how fragile liberal democracy is in the West — that this culture is something that can dissipate quite quickly. I really worry a lot that the next presidential election comes around and that the candidate will say, “Well, I don’t need to release my tax returns. Donald Trump didn’t.” Then we have a new norm, which is that no president or candidate needs to do that. Or maybe the next businessperson comes along and says, “Well, I don’t need to resign from my business. I don’t need to really disengage from my businesses. Trump didn’t.” Then we have a completely different norm.

If this becomes the new norm, then we’re starting to look like Latin America 40 years ago.

Mere hyperbole? Consider this statement yesterday from FEMA Administrator Brock Long:

“I believe the Puerto Ricans are pulling their weight. I mean, I think they’re doing what they can,” he said. “The bottom line is, the question is, a local mayor’s job is to push commander’s intent down to his or her troops.” [Emphasis added]

Long seems to see our society as a military hierarchy, with the president as Commander in Chief and state and local officials as subordinate officers. But Carmen Yulín Cruz was elected by the citizens of San Juan. She works for them, and the president is not her “commander.”

“This is a president of action”

This is not an exception. Several U.S. senators have reminded the God-King of that same fact, and the God-King and his administration have stomped on that norm with federal judges as well:

I really am amazed that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific can issue an order that stops the President of the United States from what appears to be clearly his statutory and Constitutional power.

And then there’s L’affaire Russia and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s bold statement about the God-King’s power:

“The president is the CEO of the country,” Haley told ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos on This Week Sunday. “He can hire and fire anyone he wants.”
“I think what you can see is that this is a president of action,” she said of Trump. “The reason people are uncomfortable is because he acts.”

Again, an assertion of raw power – “he acts” – in defiance of democratic norms.

So far, members of Congress and federal judges have retained the power to enforce the democratic norms of legislative and judicial independence. But don’t kid yourself. The Constitution does not declare that Congress or the federal courts are independent, co-equal branches of government. That, too, is only a norm.

And so far, special counsel Robert Mueller has retained the power to continue his investigation of whether the God-King or his staff colluded with Russia’s election meddling, and whether he obstructed justice in trying to block that investigation. But he’d like to find a way to fire Mueller and he’s asked his staff if he can use presidential pardons to hobble the investigation.

“What happens if his approval ratings are 45 or 47 percent and he does these things?”

Those norms have held, “so far.” And so far, neither ESPN nor the NFL have bowed to the God-King’s demands that people who criticize him or protest his policies should be fired.

But that’s mostly because the God-King’s approval ratings are so low that CEOs feel safe in rejecting him and Senate and House Republicans don’t fear him. What if he were more popular, Zakaria wonders:

We are seeing many of these institutions that we’ve talked about fighting back in various ways. If you think about the judiciary, if you think about the press, if you think about the professional bureaucracies in Washington and elsewhere, I think you’re seeing pretty impressive resilience. You see people within those organizations trying to do the right thing, refusing to be bullied.

But I worry about how much of that comes from how incompetent Trump has turned out to be. Imagine if he had begun with a big populist program like infrastructure, had really tried to present himself as neither left nor right. What if he got a few big wins rather than big losses he’s had with failures like health care? What happens when a popular Trump tries to do many of the same things that an unpopular Trump does? What happens if his approval ratings are 45 or 47 percent and he does these things?

What happens, indeed? The general narrative has been that the God-King’s norm-crushing is a temporary aberration, that “he’ll grow into the office” and “become presidential” or, when he never does, that his and Republicans’ bungling will usher in a progressive Democratic wave in 2018 and 2020. But the 2018 map strongly favors Republicans and the electorate is so polarized that Democrats’ messages fall flat outside their base. Add in the God-King’s ‘election integrity’ commission and the inevitable push for more voter suppression laws, and a Supreme Court that may further tip the rules toward the GOP, and it’s entirely likely that the God-King and Republicans will win in 2018 and 2020. As Zakaria told Vox:

Yes, and people often tell me, “Just be patient and let liberal democracy work itself out.” The assumption is that liberal democracies ultimately self-correct. So we can expect public passions to rise and then cool. The public might even become enamored with a populist demagogue, but they won’t stay enamored.

But the danger is what if that takes 20 years, and in that period you have erosion and a dismantling of liberal norms and institutions? I keep looking at this situation and thinking, “How much of this is going to get unraveled and how much of it will we be able to put back together?” Because many of these norms, many of these things that have enriched and ennobled our democracy, have taken a long time to take root in our culture. Which is to say, they can’t be easily rebuilt.

By 2024, we could be a democracy-in-name-only, holding rigged elections that can no longer meaningfully change policy.

Democrats have focused on the battle of ideas while Republicans have focused on the battle for power. On issue after issue, polls show Democrats are winning the battles of ideas … but Republicans are winning elections. Tomorrow we’ll look at why.


Image Credits — Democracy: Bryce Durbin (; Cracks: MothvalleySage (DeviantArt); Smoke and Painting effects: Crissie Brown (


Good day and good nuts