The Fragility of Democratic and Social Norms in the United States

Note: I follow domestic politics but by no means am I an expert in institutions, social movements, democracy, or American history.  However, I do study norms: their content, presumed effects, and their robustness. That’s what this post focuses on. 

On the eve of the election I had the pleasure of having dinner with two close friends. As we waited for red beans and rice to finish, conversation turned to the election and Donald J. Trump, current president-elect and soon to be 45th president of the United States.


His very candidacy and knowledge that even if Hillary did win by a landslide that still 40-50 million people will have voted for him shakes me to my core. It’s not that I believed that racism, misogyny, sexual assault, and xenophobia were things of the past. It’s not that I believed that fear of muslims and change was only harbored by a remote fringe of the population or readers of the The CrusaderIt’s not even that I believed that a large majority of the 40-50 million who would vote for Trump were motivated by these feelings. What scared (now scares) me most is that norms of equality, non-discrimination, anti-racism, compassion, empathy, smooth and peaceful transfers of power, and appraising policies based on facts alongside beliefs were too weak to withstand the storm of Donald J. Trump. 

James and Wouter did their best to reassure me. They argued that, if anything, Trump’s candidacy signaled the strength of democratic and social norms. What’s important, they argued, is that it took a demagogue — one who preached fear of our neighbors, people of color, and the international system writ large — claiming America was circling the drain for people to look the other way. This argument rings true to the many who study norms and even those that do not: norms don’t exist in a vacuum and are rationally violated when other norms and interests are in competition with them.

I wasn’t convinced. What scared me is that so many were susceptible to so many of the false claims of weakness and vulnerability made by Trump, his campaign, and his surrogates. ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States. Hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria are 1) not coming to the United States and 2) actually are vetted quite thoroughly. The system is not riggedClimate change is not a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.  Inner cities aren’t hell. ‘Certain people’ in “certain areas” have not and were not planning to vote in person 10 times. And you are not worth 10 billion dollars (if so, fucking prove it).

And look the other way many voters did. On sexual assault: first of all, arm rests make it impossible but more importantly, they were asking for it through their demeanor and dress; it’s actually flattering. On racism: what, Blue Lives don’t matter? On immigration: I’m just for law and order; people need to be vetted, like, extremely vetted; not all muslims… just the really muslim ones.

Clearly I was wrong about the outcome of the election. I thought Clinton would win in a landslide garnering 300+ electoral votes and win the popular vote. I just wish I knew I was wrong about the fragility of democratic and social norms in this country.

Of course, time will tell. As others more perceptive and articulate than I have laid out, the real test for our democracy starts now. But am I wrong? Was Trump unique in his ability to legitimate norm violating behavior? Or was the faith that I and many others in the strength of democratic and social norms misplaced?

Academic sidenote: And if I’m right, what lessons can be learned from Trump’s election? For scholars of norms and norm robustness, I think the election signals that measuring norm robustness is an incredibly difficult if not impossible task. Legro rightly noted that norm robustness must be measured independently of a norm’s presumed effects. That so many are shocked not so much by the results but by the messaging that produced the results should remind us that correctly identifying how strong or a weak a norm ex ante is difficult.

More importantly, I think it signals that measuring a given norm’s robustness is probably a fools task. Yes, norms are intersubjective and their pull on regulating behavior and likelihood that they can constitute identities and interests is likely to vary. But norm strength should not be measured by focusing on a given norm. Instead, we should internalize the conclusions of Shannon and others — that norms do not exist in a vacuum, that they compete with other norms, identities, and interests — and apply that to measuring norm strength or robustness. That is, norms are strong or weak relative to other norms that are themselves strong or weak. Thus measuring the strength or weakness of a given norm must be done alongside others that are part of the same ‘norm complex’. By ‘norm complex’, I mean a constellation or a network of norms that are affiliated or conflict with a particular norm. In international relations, the strength of non-intervention norms thus must be measure alongside norms of preventive self-defense or the responsibility to protect.

I’ll have more to say about norms, norm robustness, and ‘norm complexes’ in other posts and research. For now, I’ll just end with what I feel: grief.

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