We’re all norm eroders now

Up at The New Yorker this morning, I’ve got a double review of Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s new book, Tyranny of the Minority, and Joseph Fishkin and William Forbath’s The Anti-Oligarchy Constitution, which came out last year.

My essay addresses the Constitution and the rise of the right, and asks whether any part of the Constitution might help us counter the right. I come out, surprisingly, thinking that, maybe, yes, it might. That’s what I learned from Fishkin and Forbath’s “wonderfully counterintuitive” book, as I say.

The other surprise, for me, is the shift in Levitsky and Ziblatt’s position. Five years ago, you may recall, they were the leading scholarly voices arguing against the norm erosion of Donald Trump and the GOP. Now, in their work, they call for an erosion of the Constitution, the deepest norm of all in American politics. What happened?

Find out here.


  1. 21st Century Poet October 4, 2023 at 12:43 pm | #

    That’s why the right want to rewrite the constitution – which I’m sure you address in the review. Looking forward to reading it.
    In my humble opinion, I think we’re too far gone for legal/electoral fixes, but we’re entering the era of desperation, so everything will be attempted – except the only thing that will work: the left unifying, organizing itself and others, and internationalizing.
    Unfortunately, there are key unexamined operating logics based on erroneous conventional wisdom that, at present, make any real movement in that direction impossible.

  2. Benjamin David Steele October 4, 2023 at 3:15 pm | #

    That was a good dual book review and cursory historical overview. Many Americans, if they read it, might learn more useful info about American constitutional history than they did in a high school history class. But as always, it leaves me wanting more.

    Even though I can read between the lines and know the background you’re drawing upon, I’m not sure how many other Americans would be able to follow your analysis, as you cover so much material over nearly the entire history of the United States. Then again, anyone reading The New Yorker is surely well above average in this regards and so would at least have passing familiarity or even some significant knowledge.

    “If dominant groups can get members of subordinate groups to identify with them, they may not need minoritarian tyranny to stay in power. That scenario is not as far-fetched as it may sound. Until recently, that was the story of the American right, whose foot soldiers created large voting majorities and cultivated explicit support for big business from the ranks of its victims.”

    How recently do you mean? The present minoritarian ruling structure has dominated for longer than most Americans have been alive (about 65% of the population has been born since 1980). If the US was ever semi-majoritarian at any point in its history, it might’ve been in a brief window during the late 1960s and into the following decade, the last period of America’s brief social democratic experiment.

    But by 1980, Paul Weyrich, without a sense of irony or presumably hypocrisy, stated at the public opening of the Moral Majority organization that Republicans and the religious right would have a hard time winning elections if all Americans voted. He dismissed as the “goo-goo syndrome” any conservatives who actually believed in democracy and good governance. That was, of course, the beginning of the Reagan Revolution, along with the rise of the right-wing shadow network organized by Weyrich.

    Anyway, the American right hasn’t had a majority in a long time. Even in the South, the majority of citizens states that they are some combination of Democratic members, Democratic voters, and Democratic leaning. That is the most conservative and authoritarian region of the country and yet the GOP can only maintain control through voter suppression there, as is true anywhere else they win major elections.

    “More important, if the laws of identity and anxiety are as primal and potent as many progressives believe, resisting those laws risks turning the left’s project into a purely moral crusade, an exhortatory ought against the right’s is.”

    I’d disagree with that assessment and conclusion. As many leftists understand, material conditions shape thought, perception, identity, and behavior. For example, consider the social science research that shows populations with high rates of pathogen exposure and parasite load also have high rates of social-political conservatism and right-wing authoritarianism.

    Basically, levels of stress and sickness that are high, pervasive, and chronic elicit such things as the threat response and disgust response, both linked to right-wing ideologies. The causal explanation for how this happens is explained by parasite-stress theory, behavioral immune system, and sickness behavior. There is a whole field of study about all of this and it offers one of the greatest insights into why populations differ. It might help us understand why more sickly Southerners have less public will to fight back against oppressive rule.

    Ideological mindsets aren’t free-floating abstractions but grounded in real world conditions, not only economic but also physical and social. That has everything to do with morality, of course, but certainly not limited to mere righteous moral crusades. Public health is inseparable from all aspects of health: physical, neurocognitive, mental, and moral. The last one, moral health (pro-social behavior, public trust, etc), is unfortunately an area few Americans today any longer talk about; but was talked about by earlier generations.

    A probable reason the American public has gone so far left (supporting same sex marriage, pro-choice, progressive taxation, universal healthcare, gun controls, corporate regulations, environmental regulations, etc) is because of public health measures over this past century (vaccines, antibiotics, sewage systems, water treatment plants, fortified foods, school meal programs, Medicare, Medicaid, etc). That is an example of moral health. For a more extreme case, look at the half century governance of the Milwaukee sewer socialists, the last decade of which the popular tv sitcom “Happy Days” portrayed.

    Healthier people support healthier politics. Certainly, infectious diseases and parasitism have been on the decline, along with the severe nutritional deficiencies, all of which plagued humanity for millennia. But at the same time, other areas of disease have worsened, such as metabolic syndrome; exacerbated by other factors such as rising inequality. So, that is likely why we have such a mix of increasing liberalism and increasing reaction.

    “From the earliest days of the Republic, those movements insisted that the greatest threat to democracy is not the tyranny of one man but the oligarchic rule of wealth. Poor citizens, at the mercy of richer ones, could not be full citizens.”

    Yeah. Now that’s the good stuff. It’s so depressing and demoralizing that so few Americans are taught this. This has been a pivotal understanding in the American population going back centuries. Economic populism was even developing prior to the American Revolution. As for the American Revolution, it was all about anti-plutocracy and anti-corporatism, the very heart of what inspired so many Americans to organize in rebellion. And it’s what kept the revolutionary spirit alive after the war of independence was concluded (e.g., Shays’ Rebellion).

    “Instead of accepting oligarchy as the inevitable consequence of the Constitution, the Populists and Progressives looked for alternatives in the text. Through a close reading of James Madison’s notes and papers, they uncovered an argument for the national government’s design and regulation of the economy.”

    Right there. Bringing up Madison was a perfect opportunity to slide in commentary about the constitutional debate between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, some very much needed historical context. Though a Federalists, Madison was morally principled in supporting freedom, unlike Alexander Hamilton. That is what eventually caused him to turn away from Hamilton and come under the Anti-Federalist influence of Thomas Jefferson.

    So much of what you’re talking about here ultimately has its source in Anti-Federalism, something few Americans are familiar with. There is an even more interesting history of how Anti-Federalist ideology formed out of the British Country Party and Radical or Real Whigs, originating before but most strongly formed during the English Civil War. Levi Preston, revolutionary veteran and working class, was interviewed in old age. He explained,

    “Oppressions? I didn’t feel them. I never saw one of those stamps, and always understood that Governor Bernard put them all in Castle William. I am certain I never paid a penny for one of them. Tea tax! I never drank a drop of the stuff; the boys threw it all overboard. We read only the Bible, the Catechism, Watt’s Psalms and Hymns, and the Almanack. Young man, what we meant in going for those redcoats was this: we always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.”

    There are two key points. The average revolutionary had a simple motivation, that of self-governance. The other thing one won’t catch without background knowledge. Isaac Watt’s “Psalms and Hymns” was written by a preacher whose father, also a preacher, had been involved in the English Civil War. That book captured the radical theology of that tumultuous period and, in having had wide appeal, transmitted it to the following generations. There was undercurrent of egalitarianism in it.

    “This is the real story of the Constitution. A document of and for the people has become, for one half of the country, a structural support, and, for the other, an imperilled instrument of the marginalized. The choice seems clear. Return it to the people or scrap the whole damn thing.”

    That is a valid conclusion. But I’d only clarify one point. There is no half and half divide. Rather, as with the point made earlier in your review, it’s a split between a minority and a majority. The so-called ‘People’ are the majority, and they are to the left of the minority with disproportionate power. So, it’s a struggle between the present minoritarian rule and an aspiring majoritarian self-governance, the same basic struggle that goes back to the very foundation of the country, and that continued in the conflict between Federalists and Anti-Federalists. This divide has, obviously, never been resolved. It’s the inner tension of our entire society.

  3. Jonnybutter October 7, 2023 at 6:26 am | #

    “Riddled with holes….the ligaments joining these parts, what Levitsky and Ziblatt called “norms,” were frayed.”

    The argument of their first book is a quintessential fightin’ liberal, i.e. Cold War liberal, kind of story, so no wonder it was comfortable as an old shoe for so many (btw, I wonder which elite gatekeepers Levitsky and Ziblatt were thinking we ought to have been listening to lately?).

    It’s the story that never ends and *can* never end (like racism/race science): threatening things, like norm erosion, keep happening, by themselves, despite the heroic, hopeless banging themselves on the head with hard boards the fightin’ centrists continually do. “Now the norms are being frayed! What can we doooooooo?” The Eeyore School.

    This is such a wonderful piece. The argument revs up like a siren. Too much good in it to pull quotes. Everyone should read it and then again, esp readers of the New Yorker. It’s a shame the Biden admin has read only Levitsky and Ziblatt’s first book – they seem so shockingly ‘unprepared for war’.

    Speaking of Cold War liberals, I was wondering the other day: is it strange, after more than 30 years, that the Cold War is still the ocean US politics and policy swim in, and to an alarming extent? I don’t mean this as a cheap jab. Seriously, how long does it take? Ancient leaders who refuse to retire doesn’t help, but that can’t be all of it. USSR was visibly crumbling in 1988 – 36 years ago.

    This question ties into an important point Corey makes in the piece. He’s talking about Levitsky and Ziblatt’s second book, but it stands as a more general point: the basic problem with the use of platitudes or cliches is not an abstract offense against style (whatever that might be), but that their use actually inhibits real thought and imagination.


  4. Peter Teague December 13, 2023 at 10:21 pm | #

    Your double review clarified for me what’s been missing in the foundation world’s discourse on U.S. democracy. Among the institutions I work with (national foundations on the center left) Ziblatt and Levitsky have defined the problem and provided the solution set. I’ve often repeated their “north star” vision of multi-racial democracy myself, maybe because its the kind of formulation that will never be questioned. The scholars, advocates, and organizers we all talk to on a regular basis have struggled to explain why there’s no pro-democracy movement to counter the MAGA movement and you – and Fishkin and Forbath – have opened that up to a history and a set of ideas about political economy that democracy funders, in my experience, have not been considering. Thank you for the great work. I hope we can use it to move money in some new directions.

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