A congressman who yells "liar!" at a president during a State of the Union speech. A presidential press secretary who is refused service at a restaurant because of the president she serves. A majority leader who announces a nominee for the Supreme Court will neither receive a vote on the Senate floor nor even the courtesy of a committee hearing.
A judiciary committee so divided that members announce before the hearing that nothing the nominee says will change their vote. Members of the two dominant congressional parties who see compromise as surrender and hyper-partisanship as normal operating procedure.
This is what national politics has looked like to the American public for the past decade.
While it is true that politics ain't beanbag and that our political culture has sometimes descended into darkness, our democracy more often shines brightly. Those luminescent periods depend upon the ability of our political leaders to work together. And that healthy dynamic has intimately depended upon the unwritten rules of the game.
These rules are not statutory. They are not enshrined in our Constitution. Rather they are simple, invisible standards of behavior that allow people to work together to achieve collective goals. In a system characterized by a separation of powers with two distinct legislative chambers that allocates power between a national government and 50 state governments, these rules are the glue that hold our system together.
These unwritten rules have been an essential part of our struggle to form working institutions both private and public. That they emerge in brand-new institutions like constitutional conventions which are limited by time and purpose indicates their omnipresent nature. That they provided the mechanism for the Mayflower Compact that established the first majoritarian government in the
colonies underscores their importance in civil society. That without the norm of compromise on the issue of small-state versus big-state representation, the selection and term of the executive, and the highly imperfect agreement on slavery, our Constitution would have never been adopted.
Still, it is the repetitive and permanent character of legislative institutions in which these unwritten norms have been profoundly influential.In the early 1960s political scientist Donald Matthews discovered many of these same norms, or folkways as he referred to them, in the United States Senate, then often referred to as the most prestigious deliberative body in the world.
Matthews found that senators were expected to be workhorses, not show horses. Senators did not assume important committee assignments right away. New members had to serve an apprenticeship which might even extend into a second or third term before they achieved a leadership position. Members were expected to demonstrate their expertise in performing their legislative work, not their propensity to make showy speeches for press coverage or ego reinforcement.
In addressing colleagues, courtesy was invariably practiced. It was always "the gentleman from Arkansas" or "the distinguished senator from the great state of Michigan." Senators had respect for one another, and when a senator could vote for another senator's bill without adversely affecting his or her (and there was only one woman in the Senate at this time) state or district, the norm of reciprocity was adhered to.
Most of all, there was a high expectation that you would never speak ill of the Senate or run it down, otherwise known as the norm of institutional patriotism. While the idea of "to get along you needed to go along" was certainly practiced, not every senator or House member of their respective congressional party was expected to be a partisan.
I heard legendary U.S. Rep. Wilbur Mills describe this norm beautifully in a speech in Little Rock in 1990. Mills related a story in which Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn said, "Wilbur, when the party is supporting a bill that is harmful to your district or offends a personally held principle, your vote is never expected."
How quaint that sounds now, when both party caucuses in the House tolerate little or no dissent from a party position.
As television became more of a negative campaign tool, the old rules of compromise and respect for those on the other side of the aisle began to diminish. Members could bash the other side on C-Span late at night with personal attacks, exaggerating the evils of the other party, by referring to their opponents as immoral and even un-American, violating norms deeply entrenched in the legislative culture.
As legislative bodies evolved into the 21st century, studies begin to show elements of a more personal, detached, and partisan system of unwritten rules. The push for a successful legislative career--members of the Senate particularly have White House dreams--meant that once elected, they had to achieve early to bolster their re-election resumes and credentials for higher office.
As partisanship heightened and the respective political teams sought any and all advantages over each other, the norms of compromise, courtesy and respect withered. In the last several congresses the norm of apprenticeship appears to have all but disappeared, as even assertive freshmen members can now quickly assume high national visibility and prominence in their party caucus.
As the old unwritten rules lost currency, the new rules gain prominence. Attacking people personally is now completely institutionalized on talk radio, Facebook and cable news. Incivility seems to reign in every aspect of our civil society. Just two years ago, a respected college coach publicly chastised a young man who missed two field goals, calling his behavior juvenile while relieving him of his kicking duties.
At the highest system level, a president who calls his foes liars, fools, losers and makes fun of people with disabilities has accelerated our political culture toward incivility. And to be fair, his opponents often respond in kind, normalizing this type of discourse.
While we are talking about words here and not actions, the changes in our unwritten norms can lead to dire, perhaps catastrophic consequences in my view: policy gridlock, crises of institutional legitimacy, and violence between and among warring political tribes.
Consider the coming presidential election, which promises to be a very close one. If the loser claims the election was rigged (and we have heard that phraseology before), how will supporters accustomed to inflamed rhetoric with impersonal and dehumanizing norms react? Given the prevailing perversion of our norms, how could they possibly be of any help in resolving a crisis of this magnitude?
I am not optimistic that things can change, but there may be a glimmer of hope. In our political system it might be lessening the polarization of the two parties by ending gerrymandering of districts, thus making races for the House more competitive and responsive to constituents.
Ending big dark money in politics would make representatives more accountable to the citizenry rather than special interests. This would be a huge reform.
These are much needed steps, but I firmly believe change starts with us, our elected officials and our candidates in their public discourse. Electing men and women with a strong ethic of public service and a persona for constructive public policy is key, but an electorate willing to take the time to discern and discuss good candidates is even more essential.
Building social capital in our civic institutions reinforces that asset in our governmental institutions. Our old civic culture of courtesy, respect, compromise, avoiding personal attacks, and working together to foster community goals have been enduring unwritten rules in America.
I believe these elements are still present. If we can re-harness them to our politics, how much more meaningful and productive could our current political life become?
Arthur English is professor emeritus, Department of Political Science, University of Arkansas Little Rock, where he taught American national, state, and local government and politics courses, supervised the internship program, and took students to Washington, D.C., for 20 years under a class titled Capital Hill Seminar. He served as department chair from 1992 to 1995.
Editorial on 10/06/2019
Print Headline: Unruly