Democracy experts to Trump: Just because you can, doesn't mean you should

Practicing restraint and cooperation – abiding by the unwritten rules we call political 'norms' – can prevent partisans from locking into fights so bitter they risk tearing democracies apart.

Russian Foreign Ministry Photo/AP)
President Trump’s controversial White House meeting Feb. 10 with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, at left, and Russian Ambassador to the US Sergei Kislyak contributed to deep concern in some quarters over his administration’s relationship with Russia.

Here’s a bit of advice for President Trump from experts who study the processes of democracy: Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.

In other words, utilizing the full expanse of power available to a national chief executive isn’t always a good idea. The fact that a particular action is legal does not make that action wise.

Practicing restraint and cooperation – abiding by the unwritten rules we call political “norms” – helps lower the temperature of political conflict. It can prevent partisans from locking into fights so bitter they risk tearing democracies apart. It’s a nod of the head, an implicit acknowledgement that someday, after another election, the other side will win.

In recent years, norms have withered in countries such as Hungary and Turkey where democratic structures have started to deteriorate. The US isn’t anywhere near that kind of crisis. But Mr. Trump has paid little heed to many established American norms. To him, they’re not an uncodified code of behavior filling in the gaps of the law. In many ways he’s treating them as a status quo imposed by Washington elites that needs to be disrupted.

The French historian and writer Alexis de Tocqueville defined norms as “habits of the heart,” says Cal Jillson, a presidential scholar at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

“That idea of ‘habits of the heart’ is the idea that the norms of democratic behavior – of a separation of powers, checks and balances, acceptance of limits on your authority – is what makes a democratic polity work,” says Professor Jillson. “Trump is violating those ... out of ignorance or out of a thoughtful rejection, from his perspective.”

Busting norms from Day 1

Of course, Trump’s been busting norms since the day he rode the down escalator at Trump Tower to his announcement of a highly unconventional presidential campaign. In the Oval Office his actions inspire a “can he do that?” response on a daily basis.

Can he really push the Park Service to inflate the number of attendees at his inaugural? Can he really not release his tax returns? Can he really appoint his daughter and son-in-law as key White House advisers?

At important junctures Trump has invoked “it’s legal” as a defense against criticism of his actions. Thus he’s noted, correctly, that in most circumstances conflict-of-interest laws don’t apply to the president.

He’s said, correctly, that it’s within the power of the president to fire the director of the FBI. His aides have asserted, again correctly, that the president is at the top of the mountain of classified information, and can do whatever he wants with secrets – including revealing them to top Russian officials.

But just because these moves are legal does not mean they also are within long-standing political norms – for reasons.

Presidents have avoided running afoul of potential conflicts of interest so as to avoid suspicion that they are enriching themselves with their decisions. They’ve generally avoided firing FBI directors so as to enforce the idea that in America law enforcement is above political manipulation. They’ve handled secrets with care so that everyone else will.

Thus things that are within the letter of the law can risk eroding the important unwritten traditions used to govern behaviors that have been established to fill in the parts of government laws don’t cover.

“The self-restraint required of those who hold power in a mature democracy is, if not more important than the rule of law, then certainly equally important,” says Jillson.

Without norms, democracy can be hollowed out

The worry is extreme cases. If political actors use the law to its utmost extent, they may ignite a cycle of response in which opponents do otherwise. Fearing they will be marginalized or outlawed, both sides escalate into a struggle to the political death.

The experience of some less-established democracies shows what can happen when norms erode, says Sheri Berman, an expert in democratization and political science professor at Barnard College in New York.

In Hungary, the Fidesz party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban swept to power in 2010 and used an overwhelming parliamentary majority to pass a new constitution, and curtail and reshape the court system. All judges on the constitutional court are now Fidesz appointees.

In Turkey, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan survived a coup attempt last July and subsequently has attempted to crush dissent by declaring a state of emergency and jailing journalists and opposition party members, among others. (President Erdoğan is visiting Washington this week, and on Monday his bodyguards swarmed into D.C. streets and assaulted protesters outside the Turkish Embassy.)

Professor Berman says these two examples show that without the guardian of political norms restraining those in power “you can have the forms of democracy and not the substance. You can hollow out democracy from the inside.”

How much disruption is too much?

Today, democracy is generally seen as the only legitimate way of organizing government. But there are democracies, and then there are democracies that don’t really live up. Rather than explicitly overthrow existing governments, even real authoritarians now tend to burrow from within, says Berman. Take Russia, where President Vladimir Putin is a dictator in all but name, but the façade of democracy remains in place.

“What leaders have done is sort of gradually eviscerate the substance of democracy,” says Berman.

Again, the US isn’t Turkey, to paraphrase Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona. (He actually said, “We’re not Romania,” but the point is the same.) It has strong democratic institutions and civil society. A little disruption of the accepted way of doing things may not be, on its face, that bad.

Trump isn’t the only political norm-buster in the US, or even the only one in his party’s leadership. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s successful effort to block consideration of former President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland was perfectly legal. However, it was against traditional considerations. It seems likely that Democrats, if they retake the Senate and face a similar situation, would now respond in kind.

“The Trump presidency has punctured many Americans’ beliefs about their country’s exceptionalism,” writes Robert Mickey, an associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan, and two colleagues in “Is America Still Safe for Democracy?” in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs. “U.S. democracy is not immune to backsliding. In fact, it now faces a challenge that extends well beyond Trump: sustaining ... multiracial democracy."

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