• Julia Azari

It was a bad week for unwritten rules. What does this mean?

The decline of norms has become a common criticism of Trump era politics. The violation of unwritten rules ties together some of the developments in what was an eventful week in American politics. The Iowa caucuses failed to produce a clear result. The president gave a Medal of Freedom to a radio host during the State of the Union, and the Speaker of the House ripped up his speech after it ended. The Senate voted to acquit Trump on both impeachment charges, with a lone Republican, Mitt Romney breaking away from his party and from historical precedent.


Critics of the Trump administration and of rising global populism often talk about norms when they mean democratic values. However, unwritten rules are all around us, governing the democratic process in ways that are sometimes value-neutral. They sometimes develop where formal rules are absent or inadequate, or where competing values come into play. With this in mind, it’s useful to look at the types of unwritten rules that were strained or broken this week, and what it means for the state of American democracy.


The inconclusive Iowa caucuses started the political week. Plenty has been written about what this mess indicates for the 2020 race and the role of Iowa (and its many problems, such as the unrepresentative nature of the state) more generally. What I want to address is the heavily informal nature of what the Iowa caucuses do in the process. The Iowa result has always been about a shared fiction – imagining a presidential hopeful as national candidate and then a president. Among the most influential Iowa caucuses have been the 1976 one, where Jimmy Carter pulled ahead of national rivals (widely acknowledged to be the origin of their importance), and the 2008 caucuses where Obama demonstrated his viability as a candidate. The 2004 contest was important for the opposite reason: it set in motion the idea that Howard Dean did not, in the end, have the political skills or appeal to make it as a national presidential candidate.


Carter went on win a narrow victory over Gerald Ford in 1976. Obama won the presidency in the midst of the worst economic downturn in decades. Howard Dean has never become president (there’s still time, of course) but neither has that night’s caucus winner, John Kerry (same applies). The Iowa caucuses have generally applied a side of facts at a feast of speculation. Which candidates can appeal broadly to the party, be competitive in the general, and effectively step into the presidency is always a matter of guesswork. But Iowa had constructed itself, and been constructed by others, as a testing ground, especially for lesser-known candidates. Part of this fiction-based process was that the prize in Iowa is the media coverage and the victory narrative – not the actual votes or the delegate counts.


Now that the “popular vote” in Iowa is a thing, and multiple candidates are claiming some kind of victory as we await final results, the logic behind the Iowa caucuses has broken down. The value in Iowa was for a candidate to make the leap from hopeful to possibility, to create a narrative coming out of the contest about viability and to suggest that if Iowa caucus-goers could envision someone as a president, then others would be able to as well. The logic of Iowa has never been about counting the last 1,000 “votes” – but as the notion of the importance of the popular vote has gained traction, these informal understandings will likely have to change. Furthermore, the long primary and the success of unlikely candidates might render this role unnecessary. The primary electorate has had a long time to see and assess the candidates, and the narratives coming out of early states might be less necessary than in the past. And our shared fictions about what makes a realistic presidential candidate – experience, background, demeanor, ideology – have crumbled over time.


On Tuesday, President Trump delivered the State of the Union address, a practice that has been defined and redefined by informal rules. It was immediately apparent that partisan hostility had overtaken these rules went Trump refused to shake House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s hand and she declined to introduce him using customary language. As I’ve noted elsewhere, Trump has generally held to the basic formalities of these addresses, while sometimes engaging in inflammatory language or evidently false statements. This week’s speech featured plenty of things to keep fact-checkers employed, including Trump’s claims about policy regarding insurance coverage of pre-existing conditions. (Note: the linked sites also include fact-checks of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s rebuttal, which is also important but beyond the scope of this already too long and complicated blog post).


The president awarded a Medal of Freedom to controversial conservative political talk show host Rush Limbaugh and had several reality tv-style interactions with members of the audience – very different from past precedent and at odds with the expectation of a solemn event. Republican members of Congress chanted “four more years” before the speech began. A few Democratic lawmakers walked out. And in a news cycle-stealing move, Nancy Pelosi ripped up a copy of the speech after it was finished.


Norms dictate that the State of the Union should represent a ceremonial presidency beyond partisan politics. This reflects years of anxiety about the role of the president. Recently, the unwritten rules of bipartisanship have taken on greater importance as they have come under greater strain. As the relationship between the two parties has increasingly become characterized by hostility and disagreement, the occasional ritual bipartisanship reminds us of a mutually shared – if rarely realized – ideal, and temporarily shields the enormous symbolic and real power of the presidency from the ugliness of daily politics. The discomfort around Tuesday’s norm violations illustrates that these fictions are still important, even as they slip beyond our grasp. But for an establishment politician like Pelosi to so visibly and symbolically reject this aspirational fiction of bipartisanship – to tear up the speech on national television – suggests that powerful politicians are also willing to place other values above the norms that usually govern the State of the Union. The norm violation, to paraphrase Adam Serwer, was the point.


Perhaps everything anyone needs to know about this week can be summed up in the fact that the Senate’s impeachment vote is the third item on this list. (In my defense, I’m going chronologically.) On Wednesday morning, no Senator had ever voted to remove a president of their own party in an impeachment trial. By Wednesday evening, Sen. Mitt Romney had broken with that precedent. Given the limited number of presidential impeachments, maybe it’s a stretch to call this precedent a norm. But the idea of party loyalty is an especially powerful one in modern Republican politics, going back at least as far as Ronald Reagan’s “eleventh commandment” not to speak ill of another Republican. The decisions by some of Romney’s colleagues to vote for acquittal despite their previous criticisms of Trump demonstrate the power of partisan loyalty – whatever might be behind it in this case. As Sarah Binder points out, Romney’s vote gave the impeachment process a “patina of bipartisanship.” And while the norm of Constitutional bipartisanship fared badly on Tuesday, Romney’s actions point to its remaining importance. It remains to be seen whether this vote will offer the impeachment process a sense of lasting legitimacy, whether it would have had one anyway, or whether this event, like past impeachments, is destined to be widely regarded as a partisan mistake. What Romney’s vote did, however, was affirm a belief in principles beyond party politics, illustrating that this idea still matters.


Norms have a more complex and ambivalent role than is often acknowledged. They can substitute for formal rules that should exist, or protect unjust power arrangements. They also rely on a shared sense of what is important and what we aspire to, even as these ideas are subject to many interpretations. This week illustrated that there are ideas, like transcending partisanship with larger values, that are under strain but perhaps worth preserving. When Trump, Pelosi, and others violated these norms on Tuesday, we saw both the stakes and the costs of their preservation.


Political observers have lamented that partisans increasingly disagree about basic facts. But democratic politics is also about shared fictions. Sometimes when the informal rules are violated, we are forced to confront how reality is falling short of aspirations. This can also mean facing how divided we are over what we think politics and the country should be. But norms are often most easily observed when they’re broken, and these moments also offer opportunities to assess and reaffirm which political values matter most.

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