The Future of Norms in the American Political System

BEN TAUBER: It has become exceptionally clear in the past decade (and particularly in the past two years) that the functioning of the U.S. political system is largely predicated on a remarkably weak system of ethics and norms. This system only works insofar as those who operate within it are willing to maintain its values and hold themselves accountable for any ethical violations.

To its credit, the system has worked remarkably well for a long time. Politicians, despite their disagreements, have generally operated on a platform of mutual respect and accountability. On June 9, 1954, U.S. Army lawyer Joseph Welch famously uttered to Senator Joseph McCarthy, “You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?" These words, heard on live TV across the nation, had the immediate effect of evaporating Senator McCarthy’s substantial popularity, resulting in his censure by the Senate and ending his reckless anti-communist campaign. He was banished from the national spotlight until his death three years later in 1957.

In 2019, however, President Donald Trump suggested his political opponents commit treason by criticizing him. Similarly, Senator Mitch McConnell has continually chipped away at Senate norms—first by getting rid of the sixty-vote threshold for Supreme Court nominees, then by reducing debate time over judicial nominees from thirty hours to two. Senator McConnell is not the first to invoke the so-called “nuclear option.” That honor would to go Senator Harry Reid, who eliminated the sixty-vote threshold for all judicial nominees except for those to the Supreme Court—an action that, although taken due to unprecedented obstruction by Republicans, many said Reid would nevertheless come to regret.

McConnell’s actions, however, represent a steady erosion of the rules put in place based on a respect for the deliberative nature of the Senate and for the spirit of bipartisanship, which today is all but dead. Now, when Senator Chuck Schumer uses the floor in order to bring attention to these dishonorable actions, Senator McConnell is not ashamed. He laughs.

There is nothing—indeed, there was never anything—in place to stop this political erosion. The only reason such deterioration did not occur sooner is because politicians used to care about values such as respect and bipartisanship. Senator McConnell will not face any consequences for his actions because no structure exists to impose such consequences. Ethical guidelines are ineffective because they don’t have the teeth of a real law to guarantee compliance. Consequently, all punishments are self-imposed. And when a whole party refuses to enact any penalties, this results in the degradation of our fragile political system.

This is only one part of the problem, however. Politicians who abandon ethical practices in a society that cares about them will be voted out in the next election. The real problem is that some Republican voters do not consider ethics to be their top priority when voting for a candidate. Congressman Steve King has a notable reputation for uttering some of the most racist words in the modern history of Congress. Yet, he was reelected by a comfortable margin in 2018 and has the privilege of serving at least two more years in the House of Representatives. And when President Trump doles out daily insults and engages in destructive rhetoric, a sizeable percentage of the Republican voter base actively revels in his words.

However, the moral playing field has not completely perished in modern-day politics. After Representative King asked The Washington Post why “white supremacy” was considered an offensive term, Democratic leaders did not bring a censure vote to the floor due to concerns over the precedent it would set for restricting speech. In January 2018, Senator Al Franken resigned after he faced condemnation over pictures that were released showing him engaging in inappropriate, but ultimately harmless, conduct with a woman. Meanwhile though, later in October, Judge Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed by a Republican-majority Senate despite having a credible allegation of rape against him.

It is undeniable that America right now is in the midst of an ethical dilemma. Voters can either continue to support candidates who abandon norms in pursuit of political power or elect those who are willing to remain accountable and maintain standards. Regardless, the current state of affairs is unsustainable. What the future holds, however, has yet to be determined. Scarily, things may have to get worse before they get better.

Marie Swain