Democracy is Norm Erosion

Two or three weeks ago, I had an intuition, a glimpse of a thought that I pushed away from consciousness but which has kept coming back to me since: The discourse of norm erosion isn’t really about Trump. Nor is it about authoritarianism. What it’s really about is “extremism,” that old stalking horse of Cold War liberalism. And while that discourse of norm erosion won’t do much to limit Trump and the GOP, its real contribution will be to mark the outer limits of left politics, just at a moment when we’re seeing the rise of a left that seems willing to push those limits. That was my thought.

And now we have this oped by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Zilblatt, two of the premier scholars of norm erosion, about the dangers of norm erosion. Nowhere will you find the word authoritarianism, though there is a quick reference to “Trump’s autocratic impulses.” What you find is concerns about “dysfunction” and “crisis.” What you find is this:

Democrats are beginning to respond in kind. Their recent filibuster triggering a government shutdown took a page out of the Gingrich playbook. And if they retake the Senate in 2018, there is talk of denying President Trump the opportunity to fill any Supreme Court vacancy. This is a dangerous spiral.

Now imagine—bear with me—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. All 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 anti-democratic?

Levitsky and Ziblatt mention two norms: mutual toleration and forbearance in the exercise of power. Sometimes forbearance serves the cause of democracy; sometimes it does not. But by their lights, a lack of forbearance, by definition, becomes a problem for democracy.

Consider this revealing moment in the piece:

Could it happen here? It already has. During the 1850s, polarization over slavery undermined America’s democratic norms. Southern Democrats viewed the antislavery position of the emerging Republican Party as an existential threat. They assailed Republicans as “traitors to the Constitution” and vowed to “never permit this federal government to pass into the traitorous hands of the Black Republican Party.”

The authors want to posit the 1850s as a moment that “undermined America’s democratic norms,” strongly suggesting that prior to the 1850s, there was a robust enjoyment of democratic norms in America. Most of us would argue that when one portion of the people enslaves another, denying them their humanity (and the vote), there’s no real democratic norm in play. (Not to mention that one-half of the population, white and black, didn’t have the suffrage at all.) And while it would have been awfully nice if the southern slaveholders had agreed to vacate the stage of history peacefully, most of us realize that was never in the offing. Outside the South, wrote C. Vann Woodward, the end of slavery was “the liquidation of an investment.” Inside, it was “the death of a society.”

If American slavery were going to be eliminated, someone had to call the question. That’s what the abolitionists (and the Republican Party) did. They polarized society. (For a representative example of how polarizing their discourse could be, read this.) And the result—however awful the Civil War was (and make no mistake, it was more awful than you can imagine)—was not the destruction of democracy and its norms but the creation of democracy —a “new birth of freedom,” Lincoln called it—which then got undone after Reconstruction, which was also a politics of norm-shattering.

As Jim Oakes has shown, the Southern Democrats were right to be terrified of the Republican Party, to see that party as an existential threat. The Republicans did want to destroy slavery, they did want to break the back of the slaveocracy, to gut a longstanding way of life. They wanted to do it peacefully, but they also understood that if war came, it would offer an opportunity to do it violently, an opportunity that they would not fail to seize. The Republicans were norm-breakers: they didn’t just want to limit the expansion of slavery into the territories (which one could argue was or wasn’t a norm in antebellum America; see Mark Graber’s book on Dred Scott); they wanted to limit that expansion as prelude to destroying the institution everywhere. Freedom national.

Levitsky and Ziblatt know that norm erosion and polarization were afoot during the 1850s. Only they want to put the onus entirely on the slaveholders. That way, they can take a stand against norm erosion without endorsing slavery; they can pin the polarization of the era entirely on the Southern Democrats. That’s politically understandable, in some sense, but wildly off the mark, historically.

And, in the end, not so politically understandable. For it suggests—no, says—that had the southerners merely shown some forbearance toward the Republicans, democratic norms would have persisted. On the question of slavery’s persistence, Levitsky and Ziblatt have nothing to say.

A similar, though perhaps less fraught, moment arises in their treatment of the Constitution:

We should not take democracy for granted. There is nothing intrinsic in American culture that immunizes us against its breakdown. Even our brilliantly designed Constitution cannot, by itself, guarantee democracy’s survival. If it could, then the republic would not have collapsed into civil war 74 years after its birth.

One of the last books Robert Dahl, one of our foremost analysts of democracy, wrote was How Democratic is the American Constitution? His answer: not very. Yet in the same way that the discourse of norm erosion re-describes antebellum America, half of which was a slaveholder society, as a democracy, with democratic norms needing protection from polarizing forces, so does it re-describe the Constitution as a “brilliantly designed” text that is necessarily, though not sufficiently, connected to “democracy’s survival.”

What the oped does is show what the real object of concern is in the discourse of norm erosion: not authoritarianism, as I said, but extremism—whether that extremism comes from slaveholders or abolitionists, the Republicans shutting down the government to deny people healthcare or the Democrats shutting it down to allow immigrants to live here. Both sides do it.

If your highest value is the preservation of American institutions, the avoidance of “dysfunction,” the discourse of norm erosion makes sense. If it’s democracy, not so much. Sometimes democracy requires the shattering of norms and institutions.

Democracy, we might even say, is a permanent project of norm erosion, forever shattering the norms of hierarchy and domination and the political forms that aid and abet them.



  1. Brett January 28, 2018 at 10:04 pm | #

    Democracy, we might even say, is a permanent project of norm erosion, forever shattering the norms of hierarchy and domination and the political forms that aid and abet them.

    Disagree. Dissolving norms in the name of democracy is rolling the dice – sometimes you get abolition and a new birth of democracy, other times you get Nicolas Maduro and Augustus Caesar (or worse).

  2. Scot Griffin January 28, 2018 at 11:11 pm | #

    As with much of your writing, I find this post simultaneously profound and confounding. On the one hand, I agree with you that what you call “democracy” is a permanent rejection of “norm erosion” when the “norm” is defined by hierarchy and domination. On the other hand, not all norms relate to hierarchy and domination. Indeed, in some cases, “norms” relate to institutions that allow democracy to do what you say it does. Generally, the concerns about norm erosion I’ve seen expressed relate to those kind of norms. Perhaps the problem is a loose use of language that leads to conflating very different ideas of what norms are.

    That said, I will go read that op-ed.

    • jonnybutter January 29, 2018 at 8:17 am | #

      The way I read it is as against Norms as a value. During the BO administration, Obama constantly invoked ‘compromise’, as if it were a free-standing value. But of course it depends on the issue! There is a time to compromise and a time not to; a time to shatter norms and a time not to. Turn turn turn!

      I’m sure ‘compromise’ polls well, but unfortunately, liberals like Obama also probably really believe (or ‘believe’) this nonsense. Mediocre politicians insist on ceding proximate responsibility, and they find a way – conservatives cede to the Market, liberals to Norms. The value ought to be *democracy*

      • JD January 29, 2018 at 9:01 am | #

        Yes! I feel the same way about the way the 2016 Clinton campaign invoked “incremental change.” It’s not a bad thing per se, and sometimes it’s the best you can get, but to hold it up as an guiding principle in and of itself? Give me a break.

        Both examples speak to the way neoliberalism has consciously substituted methods for values. By helping to conceal unpalatable policy goals it’s been a key to neoliberalism’s success, but will ultimately prove to be a major long term weakness.

        • jonnybutter January 29, 2018 at 10:16 am | #

          Exactly JD – the slow pace itself has somehow become the value. It’s ridiculously conservative. Today’s liberals’ greatest aspiration? To show conservatives the ‘correct’, dignified way to be conservatives. Isn’t it great? I also agree w/you that it’s a vulnerable political position. It’s the kind of thing that works so long as it doesn’t occur to people to think about, but once done you can’t unthink it. I’d say it seems to have occurred to lots of erstwhile Dem voters already in 2016.

      • LFC January 29, 2018 at 3:12 pm | #

        The position of the authors of How Democracies Die, which is the position being addressed by the OP, is not a brief for compromise as an end in itself. No doubt Corey R. is somewhere to their left politically, and that’s fine, but to call a post “democracy is norm erosion” when what you mean is “democracy is erosion of *some* norms” — i.e., the arguably undemocratic ones — seems odd. It’s a title, it has to be catchy, but I think it may lead to some confusion.

        • jonnybutter January 29, 2018 at 4:31 pm | #

          I don’t know what you’re objecting to LFC. I brought up Compromise as a Value as another example of what JD and I were talking about; s/he called it ‘the substitution of methods for values’, which is exactly what it is – a substitution, which is a replacement. Now that I’ve thought about it I can also see that it’s a variant of the old means/ends problem that so many liberals get stuck on.

          Generally, means and ends are symbiotic. ‘Do the ends justify the means?’ is a meaningless question because it’s abstract; it’s got to be ‘do *these* ends justify *these* means’. When you break that sliding ratio relationship and the means actually defeat the ends, you’ve clearly lost your way. It’s a mystification.

          • jonnybutter January 29, 2018 at 5:50 pm | #

            Sorry I didn’t fully answer your comment, LFC. My guess is that the problem with locating the source of our political problems in norm erosion and polarization is one of barking up the wrong tree (a fatal mistake). Which it absolutely is.

            I just read the op ed, and it’s even worse than I imagined – which is pretty bad considering the excerpts CR cited in his post. Seriously, these guys are professors of government at Harvard? If you get a PhD in government, do you not also at some point study…politics?

            They don’t even make a valid (in a formal sense) argument. I totally stand by my earlier statement that the overarching goal of liberals like these guys is to demonstrate a ‘higher’ form of political conservatism. They want to be the conservatives they (wrongly) think conservatives used to be. It’s just preposterous.

    • Scot Griffin January 29, 2018 at 4:25 pm | #

      Okay. I have read the op-ed. I would say that neither of the items the authors hold out as “norms,” is, in fact, a norm. For example, mutual tolerance is a prerequisite to civil discourse, not a norm. If it were a norm, we would not have words like “rude” or “jerk” to describe those whose discourse is uncivil. Similarly, what they call forbearance is a political calculation: in a country that is evenly divided, it makes little sense to spend political capital on something that can be undone, without consequence, at the stroke of a pen in the next 2-4 years should the other party come to power. By the same token, it makes little sense to engage in behavior that is likely to ensure the other party will come to power.

      The authors are misguided in their belief that a breakdown of these false norms caused the Civil War. In fact, the lack of civility and winner take all politics of the South were indicative of deep conflicts that existed before the Constitution was ratified. In many ways, the Constitution can be viewed as a peace treaty between the North and South.

      • LFC January 29, 2018 at 6:58 pm | #

        Of course they make an argument. You don’t happen to agree with it. I don’t think the op-ed is all that well crafted (see comment below). I’ve heard them talk about their book and their position is somewhat more persuasive and nuanced than the op-ed suggests.

        Do I agree with them? Well, the argument is probably a little too process-focused for my taste. But I do think that there is something to be said for the view that political opponents should generally be seen as misguided (in some cases, deeply misguided) rivals rather than as enemies capital “E”. In most cases, at any rate.

        Those of us on this blog and similar sites get exercised, as we should, by policy: hard to look at Trump admin policies on immigration, regulation, public lands, environment, taxes, aspects of foreign policy and not think: these people are evil. OTOH when the default position of both sides becomes that the other side is evil, I think the long-run effect may be corrosive. Esp. when, as the op-ed suggests, it’s not policy that moves the majority of voters but the, in some ways, more elemental issues of religion, culture, identity, inability/unwillingness to adjust to demographic changes etc.

        The authors clearly attach some value to the functioning of a flawed capitalist democracy, which allows for at least halting change, and prefer it to certain possible alternatives. Their concern is staving off those alternatives, not sketching an emancipatory path to a socialist society. If you think they shd be doing the latter then you won’t have much patience for what they’re doing.

        • jonnybutter January 30, 2018 at 9:30 am | #


          I said they don’t make a valid argument in the formal sense. I should have been clearer.

          In (formal) logic, a valid argument is one in which if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. It doesn’t mean the premises *are* true, just that *if* they are true the conclusion must be true as well. The premises are bound to the conclusion

          We aren’t dealing with formal logic here I know, but the minimum I would expect from big shot academics would be something closer to a valid argument in this formal sense – at least an attempt. But they merely assert, and pull a couple of supposed norms out of their asses. I didn’t call them evil, but I do have a very strong contempt for what they’re saying.

          • LFC January 30, 2018 at 11:07 am | #

            One of the identified norms, mutual toleration as they label it, I think is basically a way of illustrating or indexing their argument about partisan polarization, which is not really an original argument with them.

            These two “big shot academics,” as you call them, made an effort to go beyond their particular specializations and, like C. Robin and a number of others, to write for a wider audience than just fellow academics. There are always a mixture of motives in such an effort, I guess. Whether any such efforts would closely match the protocols of formal logic is perhaps an open question. But I don’t have the inclination to go through the piece again, isolate the premises and the conclusion and then decide whether it approaches the standard of formal logic as you set it out.

            I think this will be my last comment on this.

          • LFC January 30, 2018 at 11:10 am | #

            P.s. By “these people” in the sentence “these people are evil,” I was referring to Trump and his henchmen and how one might be tempted to view them. The referent was not the authors of the op-ed.

          • jonnybutter January 30, 2018 at 12:04 pm | #

            @LFC, cont.

            I am not going to read the authors’ book. Life is short. The main reason I didn’t like this opEd is because politically, it is recommending the status quo. It specifically calls out (warns; almost scolds) the Dems to honor norms when they get their ’18/’20 wave. Never mind that the other side has smashed those norms already; the correct response is to honor them anyway. Perhaps Norms are related to American innocence. If we just believe very very hard, Jimmy Stewart/Jed Bartlett will get our norms, and our innocence, *back*.

            Now, we know the Dems will themselves do everything they can to cancel out their own wave. They are already doing it – prudently tamping down enthusiasm at the grassroots, unleashing the hacks – all the deliberately hapless stuff they do. But just in case any remotely social democratic sentiment might leak through, just in case someone left of center might think about politics in a straightforward, materialist way, we have this these two academic dorks and their imaginary world.

          • jonnybutter January 30, 2018 at 12:09 pm | #

            sorry LFC. I had to step away. I *do* believe in civility on a blog like this, and do apologize for my mistakes – I obviously misread some of your comment. Below is my last comment on this, too.

  3. Debra Cooper January 29, 2018 at 1:05 am | #

    Loved this

    Before Trump the talk was of maintaining civility. Now under the guise of anti authoritarianism ,we have the so called dangers of norm erosion. Of course it is important which nirms are eroded. Treating the DOJ as your personal protection racket is a norm that erodes democracy. Trying to use budget brinksmanship to help people is the right kind.

    When Republicans have power they do everything they can think of to skew the rules of the game in order to maintain power for as long and as tightly as possible. Democrats think if they enact good policies that help people that is the way to get reeelcted and maintain power in order to do more good. They never think about changing strucutiral factors to keep themselves in power…which is actually more legitimate as they actually represent more people

  4. Chris Morlock January 29, 2018 at 1:52 am | #

    The virtue signaling on the Left for the civil war always fails to point out the most standard Marxian interpretation that the war was not about Slavery (as said many times by Lincoln himself: “If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them.”

    So social norms were not really at the heart of an industrialized north wanting to economically conquer the south, which was the real engine of change. Sure abolitionists wanted slavery destroyed on moral grounds, but it wasn’t until it made economic sense that it became a reality.

    If that was “norm erosion”, it definitely was not confined to purely idealistic concerns. The Left fails to grasp that Trumpism is primarily successful, and motivated by, similarly economic principles. Without an advocate for 50 years, the working class (call it the white working class if you want to be hip and condescending) chose Trump not for reasons of wanting to persecute immigrants. There is no “norm erosion” there, just a re-branding and capitalization on working class fears that immigration, particularly the illegal kind, harms them. Typical anger and hatred spurned from classic Nativism and racism is not the cause- it’s economic attrition. If that’s the case, then the failure of the neo-liberal Democrates to address their concerns manifests itself in working class anger at elites.

    Sanders addresses the issue by addressing the core problem, hence his unrivaled popularity.

    • WLGR January 30, 2018 at 1:16 am | #

      Chris, claiming that “the Left fails to grasp that Trumpism is primarily successful, and motivated by, similarly economic principles” depends how you define “the Left.” For the neoliberal centrist figures who propagandistically identify themselves as “the Left” in mainstream discourse, assuming they’re minimally aware, they clearly do grasp the obvious economic concerns about free trade and deindustrialization and so on; the problem is that they oppose these concerns and pretend not to understand them as a propaganda tactic to avoid addressing them, much like their propaganda tactic of pretending not to recognize the possibility of legitimate Sanders-style opposition to their left. Radical anti-imperialist leftists (to the left of Sanders-style social democracy) also understand and oppose the economic concerns of Trumpism on a different level, the level at which racism itself is an economic concern, “an ideological legitimation for the hierarchical division of the global labor force,” where economic exploitation is only a problem when it happens to people of the “wrong” race or nationality, not when it happens to anybody at all.

      If there’s any version of “the Left” that really doesn’t grasp the economic character of Trumpism, it’s the Sanders-style social-democratic Left, for whom racism and xenophobia are at best dismissed as issues that “intersect” with economic class issues in some vague and unspecified way, or at worst dismissed as infantile “distractions” from issues of economic class. For a committed white nationalist, racism and xenophobia are issues of pure economic class, and the ideological sorting of humanity into “higher races” and “lower races” (or “great countries” and “shithole countries”) has always been about finding ways to justify what at the end of the day is economic oppression. Even certain elements of the neoliberal centrist camp probably understand this dynamic better than Sanders-style social democrats do, the problem being that they’re also imperialists who tacitly support the existence of racism and xenophobia as useful political tools — which may be why so many of their loudest justifications for anti-Trumpism (the Russia collusion narrative envisioning Trump’s presidency as a shadowy foreign conspiracy against America, the DACA narrative cherry-picking the few “good” immigrants who deserve our sympathy from the many “bad” ones who don’t, and so on) seem so thoroughly fine-tuned not to challenge Trumpism’s racist and xenophobic underpinnings in any substantial way, but if anything to actually reinforce them.

      • Chris Morlock January 31, 2018 at 1:05 am | #

        WLGR that is a very deep analysis, but I am one of the classic new deal democratic Sanders socialists and I cannot abide the far Left’s conflation of race and class to the point where it basically tells 60% of the population (the white working class) that they don’t have any voice and are in fact the principle obstacle to progress. This “white man bad” culture is to me much more of a real institutionalized Racism than any white supremacist conspiracy. When I say “the Left” I include nearly the entire cultural Left, who have bought this anti-white imperialist narrative on some level. Even Sanders has bought it, but he continues to focus on class warfare thus not alienating the majority of working people.

        I agree these ideas are deeply offensive to some people who believe them to be thinly disguised actual Racism again showing it’s face and gaining momentum. No doubt Trumpism has this dimension and is guilty of it, but the vast majority of life long Union dem voters who chose to vote for Trump did not do so out of a need to return to white supremacy. They simply calculated a metric that it was slightly better deal to go with some economic nationalism and trade protectionism over the neo-liberal global corporate oligarchy. I am starting to realize on a fundamental level that this was in fact a no-brainer to someone living in a white working class neighborhood in Wisconsin.

        But the cultural Left continues to deny this. Instead it’s Russians or white supremacists. It’s the same crowd that claims the Civil War was about slavery, when I contend it was secondary to the economic forces at play, both then and now.

        • WLGR January 31, 2018 at 9:56 am | #

          Chris, you still seem to be lost in a false dichotomy between racism and economic anxiety, as if leftists who focus on racism and imperialism are somehow inherently less focused on capitalism than leftists who don’t. The clearest example of how thoroughly you’re bamboozling yourself with this false dichotomy is when you extend it backward through history to argue that the Civil War was about either slavery or “the economic forces at play” — setting aside the patent absurdity of arguing that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, on what planet is slavery somehow not an economic force?

          I’ll put it as bluntly as I can. Anti-imperialist leftists aren’t trying to minimize or disregard the economic concerns of white working-class Americans, what we’re trying to do is point out that racism and xenophobia appeal to many of these people precisely because they present themselves as an economic solution to these economic concerns. In fact, this use of race war as a sublimated solution to class war has arguably been a central premise of the US nationalist project from the very beginning: instead of challenging the theft of your land and labor by exploiters within your own European society, you can emigrate to another continent where you can strive to benefit from the theft of land and labor from people of other races. What anti-imperialist leftists are saying is that if we really want to root out Trumpism, what we have to reckon with is the thoroughly racialized economic structure of American (and global) capitalism itself.

          • Chris Morlock January 31, 2018 at 4:26 pm | #

            I am most definitely saying that the Neo-Liberal left has completely lost any concept of economic justice beyond the usual “trickle down” effects of globalism. That’s the extent of their economic concerns, and most have embraced post modernism and neo-marxist anti-imperial anti-white ideology on some level as a social “norm”. I think to deny that is a bit of bamboozling from my perspective.

            The far Left too, in my critique, has overly relied on the anti-imperialist rhetoric while ignoring or being less interested in classic class-warfare based “norms”. It’s partly due to the fact that the Occupy movements of about 10 years ago did not accomplish much or get much attention, yet the new round of racial based movements has gotten traction. I have no argument whatsoever with those on the far left that advocate anti-imperialist and anti white-supremacy as long as it is specifically accompanied and equally emphasized with classic universal class-warfare (worker vs. owner). I just find it odd when I hear more about the latter than the former. Of course race is intertwined with capitalism. But does that mean that the Trump voter felt the pull of white working class racism and nativism as a primary force compelling them to vote for Trump? I’d ask you the same question of the white working class in the deep south in 1855, were they compelled to rebel over their deep racial hatred? Sure it was a factor, even a major factor, but does that narrative explain everything? My argument is that it does not, and that other economic “norms” and other ideological “norms” also factored heavily into their decisions.

            And the parallel to Corey’s post here is that we find ourselves in a similar historical analogy here, which I believe Corey is adeptly pointing out.

          • WLGR February 1, 2018 at 12:47 pm | #

            Setting aside the common misconception that “the Trump voter” was predominantly working-class as opposed to middle-class, since the poor of all races in the US are predominantly nonvoters… you still don’t seem to get the simple point about the distinction between racism/nativism and economic class warfare: as far as white nationalist ideology is concerned, there is no distinction! In the economic hierarchy fascists seek to build, people of some races/nationalities would receive a greater share of the general capitalist profit, people of other races/nationalities would receive a lesser share, and these explicitly racialized class distinctions would make other potential class distinctions irrelevant. (Of course, it might be worth asking ourselves to what extent the existing First World versus Third World divide in our global capitalist system actually does reflect this fascist economic vision in practice.) That said, it’s pretty silly to ask whether white nationalists are motivated either by racism/nativism or by economic concerns, since as far as they’re concerned that would be like asking them whether their car runs either on gasoline or on fossil fuels.

            If we ever want to recenter these people’s political focus on non-racialized economic concerns (a Mexican migrant laborer is no less deserving than a white American laborer, an Aryan banker is no less parasitic than a Jewish banker, etc.) then the specific aspect of their ideology that needs to be confronted is the racism/nativism. No matter how correct the left’s economic narrative about workers and owners may ultimately be, unless the racism is eradicated it’ll only keep getting pushed barely under the surface before reemerging as strong as ever to racialize the economic narrative all over again, and the left (by which here I mostly mean the social-democratic Sanders-style left) will only end up repeatedly puzzled by how easily the fascists keep managing to steal all their voters.

    • will_f January 30, 2018 at 1:54 pm | #

      The virtue signaling on the Left for the civil war always fails to point out the most standard Marxian interpretation that the war was not about Slavery (as said many times by Lincoln himself

      Corey Robin deals with this question, in the OP.

      “As Jim Oakes has shown, the Southern Democrats were right to be terrified of the Republican Party, to see that party as an existential threat. The Republicans did want to destroy slavery, they did want to break the back of the slaveocracy, to gut a longstanding way of life. They wanted to do it peacefully, but they also understood that if war came, it would offer an opportunity to do it violently, an opportunity that they would not fail to seize.”

      Oakes argument is an eye opening one. He shows that the Republican party, in their own writings, were absolutely interested in ending slavery.

  5. mark January 29, 2018 at 5:59 am | #

    “As it tries to overcome this deficit of the popular by means of the unpopular — as opposed to its heyday, when it overcame the popular by means of a counterpopular — today’s conservative movement calls to mind its predecessor in early 19th-century, pre-Reform Britain, dependent on a combination of rotten boroughs and stale rhetoric.”

    (Corey Robin, 2017)

    “The term Whig has the convenience of expressing in one syllable what Conservative Liberal expresses in seven.”

    (Lord John Russell, 1850s)

  6. Lichanos January 29, 2018 at 9:29 am | #

    I think attitudes towards John Brown – feedom fighter or extremist nut – are good illustrations of the point you make.

    And yeah, people should read Fred more!! 🤓👍

  7. WLGR January 29, 2018 at 11:57 am | #

    I’ve always been skeptical of “democracy” as an ideological master signifier for being vague enough to mean more or less whatever the speaker/listener wants it to mean, even by the normal standards of ideological equivocation that plague other political signifiers like liberalism, conservatism, socialism, fascism, freedom, totalitarianism, and so on. On the one hand, there’s a rhetorical current dating at least as far back as the US founding elites and their obsessive fear of the masses, where “democracy” signifies a norm-shattering mass uprising against a norm-governed “antidemocratic” establishment order signified by a term like “republic” — on the other hand, there’s another longstanding yet diametrically opposed rhetorical current dating back at least as far back if not further, where “democracy” stands for precisely the establishment of a norm-governed political order that an “antidemocratic” mass uprising signified by a term like “populism” might seek to shatter. (To those immersed in the ideology of the US creation mythos who might find this latter current far-fetched, recall that in ancient Greek democracy, leadership elections allowing for prestigious individual candidates to mobilize the masses outside the bounds of formal procedure were considered directly antidemocratic and potential inroads for tyranny, whereas the democratic option was to remove the choice of leadership from direct popular control via a rigidly proceduralized random lottery resembling a modern-day jury pool selection.)

    If we accept the limiting yet also revealing interpretation of mainstream US politics as a conflict between those on either side of the proverbial aisle who stand for “the norm-governed establishment” versus those on either side of the same proverbial aisle who stand for “the will of the people” (think of Chris Arnade’s metaphor of “front row kids” versus “back row kids”), a common thread seems to be each group defining its own position as democratic and the opposing position as antidemocratic, even though the definitions being diametrically swapped are practically identical. When we find ourselves bound in practice to such a maximally vague signifier and we can’t precisely articulate our theoretical reasons for continuing to cling to it, apart from the tautological propaganda value of clinging to it to appeal to others who also cling to it, then maybe the best move for the sake of our own understanding and clarity would be to step away from it altogether.

  8. troy grant January 29, 2018 at 3:01 pm | #

    If its not direct, its not democracy.

    “Conservative” sounds nicer than “authoritarian”.

    “Non-hierarchical” sounds nicer than “anarchist”.

  9. LFC January 29, 2018 at 6:04 pm | #

    from the OP:
    “The authors want to posit the 1850s as a moment that ‘undermined America’s democratic norms,’ strongly suggesting that prior to the 1850s, there was a robust enjoyment of democratic norms in America. Most of us would argue that when one portion of the people enslaves another, denying them their humanity (and the vote), there’s no real democratic norm in play.”

    from the op-ed:
    “Norms of forbearance have not always been strong in the United States: They were weak in the republic’s early years and they unraveled during the Civil War.” (italics added)

    So the op-ed doesn’t suggest “there was a robust enjoyment of democratic norms” before the 1850s. That said, I tend to agree that their treatment of the 1850s in the op-ed is somewhat problematic.

    OTOH I’d suggest, contrary to the OP, that one doesn’t need the discourse of ‘norm erosion’ to “redescribe” antebellum America as a (flawed, imperfect, compromised) democracy. Tocqueville described antebellum America as a democracy in the 1830s. Contemporary historians refer to “Jacksonian democracy.” It’s not like no one has ever talked about antebellum America as a democracy and suddenly these two political scientists come along and “redescribe” antebellum America as a democracy. People talk about ‘Athenian democracy’ and it’s well known that there were slaves in classical Greece.

    The real issue here is that Levitsky and Ziblatt think that extreme partisan polarization is bad or dangerous in itself, and Robin does not. That’s a legitimate disagreement and would be an interesting debate, but it gets lost in all the stuff about the 1850s and the quotes from Oakes and Woodward. Extreme polarization was arguably *inevitable* in the 1850s and arguably even desirable. We aren’t in the 1850s, and I doubt it’s esp. desirable today. The op-ed would have been better and focused the issue more if they’d left out all reference to the 1850s, IMO.

    • jonnybutter January 30, 2018 at 2:39 pm | #

      Norms of forbearance have not always been strong in the United States: They were weak in the republic’s early years and they unraveled during the Civil War

      I assumed they were talking about the Art. of Confederation days in that passage – the ‘early years’. If so, their thesis doesn’t work there either. The new (1787) constitution wasn’t more functional because it set up voluntary norms, but because voluntary norms had failed.

      Or maybe Shay’s Rebellion and the like is what they meant? I don’t claim to know what they meant.

      How quickly can inviolable Norms form, anyway? How could they unravel in 1850 if they weren’t raveled? Maybe they were weak, but still raveled?

      Maybe Norms are, in a sense, always in crisis, and need constant renewal, like faith.

  10. djrichard January 29, 2018 at 8:59 pm | #

    Recommend checking out by CJ Hopkins. He’s pursuing the same theme.

  11. Daniel Caraco January 30, 2018 at 3:13 pm | #

    It is an interesting riff. However, the analysis could benefit from a clearer distinction between norms and values. Norms are specifications upon values. They reflect more specific behavioral guidelines. Political Science screwed things up back in the 1960’s. It became enamoured with survey research–polling–to the detriment of its historical, and philosophical, concern for political education around the values and norms which frame and improve the functioning of democracies. Instead, the discipline got more focused upon power, and how to secure it. It is this trend that serves to undercut the prospect of decent democratic institutions.

  12. Chris Morlock January 31, 2018 at 4:30 am | #

    The Left, as a cultural and ideological force in American, since the 1960’s (and particularly since the Reagan years), has embraced post modernism and neo-marxism as a kind of elite group think. It “trickled down” to the rank and file. This 40-50 year narrative culminated in the “deplorable” comments from Clinton and the not so thinly veiled comments that basically implied that in order to take a keep power in American politics, a group of left wing encouraged sub-identity groups (call them minority groups) could, when put together, essentially outweigh any need for the white working CIS male. This was revolutionary, and it seemed that women, ehtnic minorities, and even immigrants and the undocumented could rally together and create a new hegemony.

    A similar convergence occurred leading up to the Civil War, where the various Northern groups realized their industrial power was capable of pure domination of the South’s Slavocracy. Argue the merits of norms or values all you like, the bottom line is the purely economic condition that allowed the war to exist. It’s very much like Clausewitz: “All else being equal, the course of war will tend to favor the party with the stronger emotional and political motivations, but especially the defender.”

    Here the tables are turned, and the Trumpists are the defenders, and they carry with them the emotional and political motivations of the entire working class. It’s a twilight zone episode to be sure.

    • Katsue January 31, 2018 at 9:17 am | #

      If Trumpists carry with them “the emotional and political motivations of the entire working class”, why does Trump’s government look so much like Dubya’s?

      • Chris Morlock January 31, 2018 at 4:32 pm | #

        That would be the twilight zone effect……..

      • Billlikin February 5, 2018 at 9:55 am | #

        Trump is not a Trumpist.

      • Billikin February 5, 2018 at 10:52 am | #

        L&Z again: “Democrats are beginning to respond in kind. Their recent filibuster triggering a government shutdown took a page out of the Gingrich playbook. And if they retake the Senate in 2018, there is talk of denying President Trump the opportunity to fill any Supreme Court vacancy. This is a dangerous spiral.”

        Response in kind (Tit for Tat) is not a spiral, dangerous or not. It may become a feud, however. The filibuster has become, under the Republicans, a normal legislative tactic. Since it hinders governance, the Democrats may not embrace it to the same extent. And, in the case of the current shutdown battle, there is no spiral, not even a feud. The Democrat response is measured. And as for denying Trump judicial appointments, that is time limited, even if the Democrats pull it off. These tactics are not escalating, unlike the court packing examples L&Z gave.

    • WLGR January 31, 2018 at 11:26 am | #

      Chris, Marxism and postmodernism are mutually incompatible — Marxism is premised on a modernist historical metanarrative about the development of human society through the development of economic class struggle, whereas postmodernism is premised on a general critique of all modernist historical metanarratives as reductive and oversimplified. Many postmodernists criticize various forms of Marxism as a left-ish expression of imperialist Eurocentrism, and many Marxists criticize various forms of postmodernism as a left-ish expression of “end of history” capitalist neoliberalism. To conflate the two suggests that you don’t understand a thing about either.

      That aside, are you really trying to argue that there’s no such thing as a nonwhite working class? Because that’s very much what you seem to be saying, even though nonwhite workers are a sizeable minority of workers in the United States (if not an outright majority, depending how you define “worker,” since the upper and middle classes contain far more white Americans than nonwhite Americans) and an indisputably overwhelming majority of workers in the overall capitalist world system. What Trumpism carries are the emotional and political motivations of a small minority of the global working class, specifically the motivation to solve the problem of their own economic exploitation and oppression by petitioning for a greater share of the proceeds from the exploitation and oppression of the larger majority. For leftists in the United States to oppose this exploitation and oppression despite its potential benefits for white Americans doesn’t make us anti-worker, any more than it would have been anti-worker for a leftist in Nazi Germany to oppose concentration camp labor despite its potential benefits for racially pure Aryans.

      • Chris Morlock January 31, 2018 at 4:50 pm | #

        I have no doubt Marxism is antithetical to post modernism. I said neo-marxism, which is in my view the ported version of Marxism to be specifically compatible with classic Marxism. Since I am more of a reverent Marxist, I see a deeply troubling series of concepts developing from the neo-marxists. Herbet Marcuse is the most troubling to me of them all, and I see this in varying degrees across the spectrum of Leftist thinking in the USA. It’s a norm I’d like to erode.

        “The fact that society is so radically unequal means that we should be intolerant and repressive in the name of tolerance and liberty. ” – written by conservative Fred Bauer of the National Review. Bauer writes about many of these fallacies that have plagued Left wing thinking since the 60’s. There are many substantive criticisms of the Left that have been written off as “reactionary”.

        There are two basic norms within the Left today, in varying degrees: 1) Those that want equality of outcome, and 2) Those that want the system to be reversed, complete with reparations for the past and present. Both are morally sound, as #2 simply thinks justice can only be achieved through reparations. The problem is telling who is who, since the “norm” of their speech and ideology appear identical.

        Workers are those that work for a living. It has nothing to do with gender, race, political standing, etc. That’s why its so simple and beautiful, it’s the largest and most accommodating tent, and the one Sanders is inviting us to enter.

    • LFC January 31, 2018 at 4:40 pm | #

      @ Chris Morlock

      As the comment by ‘will_f ‘ above suggests, your (ostensibly) Marxist interpretation of the Civil War as being all about economics and only very secondarily about slavery is historiographically way out of date. It’s not convincing. Slavery was both an economic and a moral issue; one can tease out these strands for some purposes, but to declare that the Civil War was all about Northern industry v the Southern plantation economy, and that’s it, is absurdly reductive. (Not even Barrington Moore’s chapter on the civil war in Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, a book centered on ‘structural’ factors, dismisses the moral debate about slavery as irrelevant, if memory serves.)

      • Chris Morlock January 31, 2018 at 5:04 pm | #

        I’m not dismissing the idea that the Civil War was about slavery, sure it was a major issue and also the most pivotal issue. But to moralize that and pretend that Northern abolitionists almost religious level of hatred for slavery was the primary motivating force against the Confederacy is equally myopic.

        Again I will draw the uncomfortable parallel: the average white working man enlisting into the Confederacy who did not own slaves nor had any real prospect of doing so most likely thought the Confederacy was the only way to fight against Northern aggression and retain their limited social standing. Yes that social standing had systematic moral and ethical problems, no doubt. But did the hatred and racism motivate the decision? Or did it have to do with an personal economic outlook? If both, then what was the breakdown? I would argue it had much more to do with preserving some limited personal status in light of that status totally being destroyed. A bit of a no-brainer decision in terms of self preservation.

        And what of the Trump voter? Did typical white working voter succumb to deep racism and nativism? Or did they calculate the simple metric that Hillary’s global neo-liberalism was just going to make things worse for them? If both, what was the breakdown?

        Corey has been writing about the Civil War lately, and I think he is very much on to a theme that resonates deeply today. There are major parallels.

        • Katsue February 1, 2018 at 7:14 am | #

          I’m not sure how it makes sense to talk about “Northern aggression” when (a) the secessionists fired the first shots* and (b) it is doubtful that the cause of secession had majority support in the South. In addition to the almost total opposition by Southern blacks to a war explicitly fought in order to defend slavery, there was also substantial anti-Confederate resistance among white populations in such areas as the Appalachians.

          * And it is not, after all, as if they were a separate conquered population. Southern aristocrats had dominated US politics since independence.

  13. b. January 31, 2018 at 5:03 pm | #

    German political discourse at one point featured a distinction between “value conservatism” and “structure conservatism”. The latter comes in different strains, such as the preservation of natural structures evolved over millions of years, vs. the preservation of procedures and institutions mere decades old. A specific flavor of structure conservatism has been described as “cargo cult”.

  14. Roquentin February 1, 2018 at 11:42 am | #

    The extent to which the Civil War was about slavery is a very messy thing to untangle. A long time pet peeve of mine is the self-serving things the North tells itself about the South, with people who usually have much better analysis suddenly throwing that out the window in favor of geographic rivalry. Sure, the “Lost Cause” argument is bullshit, but I get really tired of the abolition of slavery being listed as the only reason the north went to war. As someone stated previously, it only became a cause for the North later in the war when it made economic sense. While these things eventually coincided, it didn’t necessarily have to be that way. Yes, it is quite good that the abolition of slavery was the eventual outcome of the war, but to go back and retroactively make the entire war about that (which isn’t that different to how the US role in WWII is often reduced to stopping the Nazis and their barbaric Holocaust) quite simply isn’t accurate.

    As for the discourse around norm erosion, it always was fundamentally conservative. I don’t care whose mouth it is coming out of. All the arguments you make about Burke and conservatism, of needing to save an elite and a system from itself can apply to that sort of talk around norm erosion and it damn well should. At the bottom they don’t want anything to change, not in any serious way at least, and that’s the argument on the face of it.

    In the end, conflicts, movements, and political parties are a collage of different interests, then as much as now. Not everyone involved wants the same things and different groups with in them, ostensibly on the same side, are constantly trying to use one another for their own ends. Sometimes their interests coincide, other times they do not, sometimes said groups fracture over these splits and other times they do not.

    • WLGR February 1, 2018 at 1:36 pm | #

      Roquentin, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has an intriguing bit in An Indigenous People’s History of the United States describing what she calls “the cult of the covenant” as a common feature specifically of settler-colonial societies, obviously including the US but also Israel and apartheid South Africa, distinguishing between this fanatical mass obsession with sanctifying every last political norm, tradition, and document as part of a literal or metaphorical compact with God, versus the more ordinary conservatism of a typical national ruling class, which she describes as often much more flexible about tinkering with its political institutions as seems necessary. Basically the contention is that founding our nation as a project of enslavement and colonial genocide was justified by our alleged adherence to a holy covenant, or whatever the secular ideological equivalent would be, and the deep-seated fear is that should we ever loosen our grip even slightly on that divine or divine-esque permission slip, we might be forced to confront the extent to which our entire national history has been one massive crime against humanity from the very beginning. I’m sure a lot more research could be done on that hypothesis, but it’s certainly interesting to consider, don’t you think?

      • LFC February 1, 2018 at 6:24 pm | #


        I think it may be worth noting how much more widespread an acknowledgment there is in the U.S. now, as opposed to some decades ago, of the settler-colonial, violent, racist etc. aspects of the national past. (This extends to the Civil War, as the recent controversies and protests over Confederate monuments attest.) That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot more ‘work’ to be done in this connection.

        Only one strand, albeit a quite significant one, of the U.S.’s self-conception (for lack of a better phrase) involves or has involved a purported covenant with God, and the notion has always had critics. I doubt whether most people in the street today think in these terms, not consciously at any rate. Some people do of course; it varies by geography, political party, cultural environment etc etc.

        As far as U.S. foreign policy is concerned, the idea of a providential mission has been denounced and critiqued esp. at certain junctures, and not necessarily only by people on the left. I’ve lately been reading an essay that’s relevant here: T.J. Jackson Lears, “Pragmatic Realism versus the American Century,” in A. Bacevich, ed., The Short American Century: A Postmortem (2012). Whatever elite consensus there was about the U.S.’s supposed ‘mission’ abroad — and at least since the Spanish-American War, if not before, there was never an unquestioned one — was definitively wrecked by the Vietnam War, and it has never really been put together again, the efforts of Repub and Dem presidents alike notwithstanding.

        • Chris Morlock February 2, 2018 at 1:07 am | #

          There is no doubt America needs to confront it’s imperial and white racist past. But consider the metrics of modern Left wing thought in terms of these atrocities. We were told (at least I was told in college) that Racism requires power to in fact be a functioning reality. If white working people have no power, which I would argue they have very little of given the welfare red-state problems: high unemployment, drug addiction, lack of education, etc. then the conversations we have on the Coasts in coffee houses about how the deepest of our psychologies are a result of white racist patriarchy, etc. etc. are basically alien to most working “white people”. They also appear condescending, and since there is no “power” involved we have a bad philosophical situation here.

          I honestly don’t believe these people are racists or reactionaries. 95% of their parents and grandparents, from the great depression until the mid 1970’s, voted Democrat and most likely had pictures of FDR on the wall. Call them “Conservative Social Democrats”. If anyone can tell me with a straight face that everyone on the Left, from the corporate neo-liberals to the progressives to the far-left neo-marxists don’t have contempt for these people, either conscious or sub-conscious………….

          If the Right’s Achilles heel is that they demonize immigrants and minorities while defending the status quo, then the “Left” (the entire spectrum is guilty of building a demon of their own, the red state “straw man”. .

        • WLGR February 5, 2018 at 10:53 am | #

          Late reply, LFC, but neither my view nor Dunbar-Ortiz’s requires that the “cult of the covenant” be a hyper-literal religious commitment, as long as the more secular versions have the same general ideological outlines and can coexist alongside their religious doppelganger without impacting the actual material goals of the settler-colonial project. We can see this slippery ideological elision even in the Declaration of Independence itself, with its reference to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” or to take a non-US context, in Israeli PM Golda Meier’s famous response to an interview question about her religious beliefs, “I believe in the Jewish people, and the Jewish people believe in God.” In both the US and Israeli cases, even though the justifications for settler-colonial conquest are explicitly religious in origin (Dunbar-Ortiz details how even to this day the US Constitutional precedent for denying indigenous nations’ sovereignty ultimately derives from the “doctrine of discovery” originally formulated in 15th-century papal law) an avowed secularist committed to the same settler-colonial projects “can still gesture in the direction of things that resemble those values, vaguely” without necessarily needing to justify it further.

          Of course, to the extent that there are nominally secular justifications for a religious-esque cult of the covenant in the US (apart from the explicitly race-based ones, which also have their religious origins) they can run the whole gamut of general exceptionalist tropes, like the US as a “beacon of democracy,” or its constant striving toward “a more perfect union,” or something along those lines — tropes that tellingly enough are often conceived as an advance across a metaphysical “frontier” of justice/inclusion/progress/democracy/etc. If you’ve never read the famous old “frontier thesis” historian Frederick Jackson Turner himself, I definitely recommend it, because he lays this ideology out on the table as explicitly as possible: “In place of old frontiers of wilderness, there are new frontiers of unwon fields of science, fruitful for the needs of the race; there are frontiers of better social domains yet unexplored. Let us hold to our attitude of faith and courage, and creative zeal. Let us dream as our fathers dreamt and let us make our dreams come true.” Given that the word “frontier” in a settler-colonial context like the US is a referent for (let’s say it all together now for emphasis) ge – no – cide, the entire conceptual metaphor seems grotesque and retrograde to the core, almost as if advocates for enlightened humanism in Germany were to describe their vision of social progress as “the final solution to the injustice problem.”

          As far as “foreign policy” is concerned, Dunbar-Ortiz and like-minded contemporary historians also sharply criticize the instinct among people like Bacevich to demarcate the US’s modern “foreign” overseas military expansionism from its earlier “domestic” expansionism across the North American continent, depicting foreign expansionism as drifting (Drift-ing?) from the US’s allegedly non-militaristic and non-expansionist roots. The last chapter of her Indigenous People’s History, partially recapitulated here, describes in no uncertain terms how directly the US military’s current global imperialist/counterinsurgency role is an extension of the continental Indian Wars that shaped its (and the US’s in general) first century-plus of existence. To the extent that many liberals have recoiled from the open celebration of “empire as a way of life” merely by substituting the ideological delusion of a pre-20th-century non-imperialist United States, I would argue that their attitude toward the “cult of the covenant” and its real-world consequences is less of a wholehearted rejection, more of a frantic and weaselly disavowal.

          • LFC February 5, 2018 at 6:47 pm | #


            I do see significant points of connection between the U.S.’s continental expansion — which did of course involve genocide — and the U.S.’s post-1898 behavior abroad. However, I also see some points of difference. (One of those differences is geography itself: continental expansion vs. overseas expansion. There are others. How significant the differences are as opposed to the similarities is something one could debate.)

            And while I take your point about secular versions of the ‘cult of the covenant,’ I don’t think all arguably exceptionalist tropes have the same ideological or political effect; striving to create a “more perfect union,” for instance, is not in itself an objectionable locution, since everything depends on what one means by “more perfect.” How that particular phrase has been used historically is not something offhand I know a lot about. But M.L. King’s ‘the arc of history bends toward justice’ is not really in the same discursive sphere as F.L. Turner’s rhetoric. You can find lots of references to crossing metaphysical “frontiers,” but much depends on which frontiers, how conceptualized, and how deployed in which historical contexts. I’m sure you’ll protest that this is all too obvious to mention, but to me you sometimes seem interested in forcing large swaths of discourse into procrustean beds where their historical specificity gets lost. (Yikes, what a horrible sentence, but I trust what I’m trying to say is clear enough.)

            That said, thank you for bringing Dunbar-Ortiz to my attention. I’ll try to look at her work (at least the linked Salon piece).

    • Billikin February 5, 2018 at 9:48 am | #

      Abolition may not be the main reason that the North went to war against the South, but the preservation and extension of slavery was the main reason that the South went to war against the North. They said as much, too, when they seceded.

  15. Jim February 1, 2018 at 4:22 pm | #

    Your conclusion is where I was hoping you would go. The problem with the pre-Civil War United States (and, to some extent still is) was that the northern colonies and southern colonies were established for two different reasons: the northern colonies (possibly excepting NY) were established by religious refugees who built a small-town based economy of modest agriculture and small industries. By contrast, the southern colonies were explicitly set up with economies characterized by large-scale commodity and agriculture exploitation. These very different economies resulted in the evolution of very social and cultural systems and, as a result different notions of democratic and ethical norms. The north valued broad-based public participation in civic affairs whereas the south set up a planter economy that viciously exploited black slaves and also economically exploited poorer white people. The Constitution, which was developed well after these types of society were set couldn’t possibly address the injustices of the souther system; in fact, its compromises (the Senate that favored states with rural and small populations, the 3/5ths status of blacks but no vote and the Electoral College) severely undermined democratic norms even by the emerging standards of the late 18th century. To this day, while the Constitution several times to make it ,more democratic, it is still structural anti-democratic in many ways.

    So I agree. The country will continue to deteriorate if anti-democratic norms aren’t further eroded, especially with the high unlikelihood of any further Constitutional amendments to further democracy.

  16. Billikin February 5, 2018 at 9:21 am | #

    I hesitate to get into terminology, but this discussion makes me wonder if the norms under discussion, of tolerance and forbearance, are better described as republican norms rather than democratic norms? Trump’s brand of authoritarianism is anti-republican. He would be king. As we know, kings do not have to govern; they can leave that to others, subject to their approval. And the antebellum South, while republican, had a strong anti-democratic element, slaveholders who fancied themselves as aristocrats. It is no accident that we have a Southern whiskey called bourbon. The defeat of the South in the Civil War was a victory for democracy versus aristocracy. Both sides were republican.

    Pleas to race and ethnicity, to the Volk, are democratic in nature, not aristocratic. Racism was used to justify American slavery, but being an abolitionist did not mean that you were not racist. Then, as today, racism pervades American society.

    I grew up in the segregated South. When I was a kid people said, “The South will rise again.” But nobody believed it. Maybe some Klansmen, I don’t know. Well, the South has risen again, politically. Modern American conservatism looks more like the antebellum South than the South of the 1950s and 60s. It is as though the Republican Party has become the party of John C. Calhoun. As was the case back then, racism, unveiled in the time of Trump, is used to recruit White people to support the plutocracy.

    Curiously — to me, anyway –, Karl Rove, of all people, suggests a way out for the Republicans. On CSPAN this weekend, on a panel in, I believe, San Diego, he pointed out that Texas, while a red state, has a higher percentage of Blacks, of Latinos, and of Asians, and hence a lower percentage of Whites than the national averages. His implication was that Texas Republicans do embrace minorities, and that, since the Southern strategy has succeeded, it is not needed anymore, and national Republicans can do the same. Well, we shall see.

    Levitsky and Zilblatt state: “When societies divide into partisan camps with profoundly different worldviews, and when those differences are viewed as existential and irreconcilable, political rivalry can devolve into partisan hatred.” Racial and religious differences lend themselves to being viewed as existential and irreconcilable. They are capable of rending societies apart. Norm erosion is too weak a term to describe the danger. For modern examples we have only to look at the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Differences in race, and to some extent, religion are implicated in the current political polarization in the US. Class differences are not yet viewed as existential and irreconcilable.

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