How do we cope with vanishing political norms?
We're in a period of uncertainty, and it's best to accept that -- but not give up
It’s not just the scenes of winter that have changed, but so have public norms. (Currier and Ives print, Boston Public Library collection)
As my pup and I ventured out for our morning ramble one day this week, the air was frigid and moist, portending the big snow that we’re told is coming. “About damn time,” I muttered aloud. Roscoe, who had been sniffing the ground, looked up at the sound of my voice, but expressed no opinion. He accepts disappointment better than I do.
Nobody lives happily in the Great Northeast without appreciating the four seasons. But our seasons don’t seem quite normal anymore. For starters, it has been a long time since winter’s reality has matched the idealized Currier and Ives scenes of horse-drawn sleighs cutting through deep snowdrifts. Lately there’s been nothing but disappointment for people who imagine snuggling with hot cocoa by a blazing fire as the snow flies: While a 30-year average shows our Upstate community might have expected about 16 inches of snow to have fallen over nine days during November and December, we’ve had approximately none of that this winter. One of Roscoe’s favorite sports is snowball catching, but he hasn’t gotten to play even once. He settles instead for romping in mud.1
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I’m working on accepting this new reality, since spiritual leaders often counsel that acceptance will bring us peace. In a different context, my wife reminded me the other day of the 2002 classic Comfortable With Uncertainty by the New York-born Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, and here’s the first sentence that caught my eye: “Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.”2 Right: I am learning that my wintertime happiness does not depend upon crystalline snowflakes covering the browned earth. Hey, it’s just weather.
Yet the path of acceptance seems to go only so far. Weather is one thing, but to accept the way things are in so much of American life these days seems like surrender to an avoidable ugliness. Storm systems come and go, presenting blizzards or cold rains whether we welcome them or not, but the malaise and dysfunction gripping our political system aren’t outcomes that are likewise outside our control. It seems wrong to embrace Chodron’s notion that “we don’t have to transform anything,” nor to conclude that an obstacle is mainly useful “to see what we do when we’re squeezed.”
Even in my limited understanding of Buddhism, though, I know that Chodron isn’t actually suggesting that we should, say, yield to the transgressions of civility and truth that now besmirch public life. It’s increasingly clear to me that peace of mind for many of us may lie in recognizing that our new normal is an ongoing but essential struggle against norm-shattering misbehavior. That is, we need to get comfortable with the fight, because the threat that Donald Trump and his legions present to American values and the nation’s stability isn’t going to disappear anytime soon. That’s what we need to learn and lean into right now, even if it seems antithetical to our hope for inner peace. We don’t necessarily find peace in retreat.
Norms, sociologists tell us, are expectations of behavior that are enforced socially – by how people treat and react to each other. Norms are more informal than laws, which are typically enforced by the threat of punishment. But norms tend to reflect a society’s values, which are shaped by deep experience.3 And lately we’ve witnessed the trampling and then abandonment of norms of public service that are not only traditional, but also essential in a democracy.
The most obvious of the offenses against American norms, of course, is Donald Trump’s refusal to honor the will of voters – that is, his adamant lie that he actually won the 2020 presidential race, and that the people who stormed the Capitol trying to overturn the election results at his urging were on a patriotic mission. No other president has ever attacked the fundamental right of voters to decide an election; indeed, respect for the voters’ will is the basic norm sustaining American democracy.
Despite that offense, Trump is able to mount what is so far a wildly successful drive toward a third straight Republican presidential nomination. That’s because his party has laid aside the norm of respect for truth. It’s not that politicians didn’t distort reality in their campaigns before, or that partisans haven’t always argued over how to approach problems. But Trump has inspired a wholesale abandonment of reality by thousands of public officials – and media figures pretending to be analysts of facts – who know full well that they’re propping up lies.
So new norms are beginning to emerge in the detritus of the old. Nobody who has paid any attention to facts doubts that Joe Biden fairly won the 2020 election, but Trump has made election denialism a new norm for Republican officeholders who seek his favor and the support of his backers. It’s in keeping with the fantastic fibbery that always has been Trump’s way of conducting business. The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler reports that during one five-minute section of an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity last month, Trump made two dozen false or misleading statements – a bogus claim every 12 seconds, on average.4 Nobody at Fox News, the propaganda arm of the MAGA movement, would hold Trump to account for such behavior. The fact that a serial liar has so far won the endorsement of 100 House Republicans and 19 senators, and is the runaway favorite to win his party’s presidential nomination, is a result of truth becoming a less important norm in conservative politics than one deluded man’s victory at any cost.
Also missing in today’s political climate is the norm of shame at failure. That is, the inability of Congress to do its job might in another time have prompted a retreat in embarrassment by those who block action – and maybe some involuntary retirements at the hands of voters. But we’ve grown accustomed to a government that can’t fulfill its basic chores. Under federal budget procedures, Congress gets two cracks at every issue: first it must authorize a program, then pass an appropriation to fund what it has authorized. Yet the Republican-led House, by holding out for spending cuts that are demanded by its most extreme members, is on a path to forcing a shutdown of huge chunks of the government on Jan. 19, when key appropriations run out; more funding expires on Feb. 2. The House Republican leadership seems unconcerned, because they’ve abandoned the normative expectation that government will do its job. They won’t be ashamed of being unable to keep government functioning, because the new norm is to disparage government, and to try to cleverly dismantle its work, no matter the effects on society.
And there’s this norm that likewise has fallen to partisan extremists: support for democracy. America has traditionally worked to spread the values of our democracy, and has stood with its allies to counter the forces of totalitarianism. That’s exemplified by the ringing words of John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Now, though, Congress is unable to pass funding to help stop Russian aggression aimed at suppressing the freedom-loving people of Ukraine – a failure that imperils the stability of the western alliance. The same stalled legislation would combat extremism in the Mideast and work to contain China’s expansive political ambitions in Asia. On this topic, too, Republican leaders are unwilling to cross their most right-wing members, who insist on tying that aid – which supports the norm of promoting freedom globally – to the partisan goal of focusing public attention on the unrelated issue of border security.
The abandonment of essential norms isn’t limited to one political party. Just as Republicans refused for months to deal with the outrageous fabulist George Santos, a lot of Democrats aren’t willing to stand up to Sen. Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who faces detailed and damning criminal indictments that allege he took bribes and acted as a foreign agent for Egypt and Qatar. What values underlie the failure of their colleagues to demand that both Santos and Menendez be quickly banished from public office?
So in the face of the loss of some key norms of public life, many of us may feel drawn toward a choice: continual anxiety over what lies ahead — I lose sleep over it, to tell you the truth — or, to better protect ourselves from despair, an embrace of intentional apathy. You know, maybe we could overcome the pain of the ugliness in politics by paying less attention to the troubling news, or even by staying away from the ballot box in 2024.
But that’s no better an idea than succumbing to despair. Anxiety doesn’t diminish by avoiding reality, Pema Chodron notes, but rather by openly confronting and accepting what is. We don’t know how or when today’s political fever will break, or what pain it will surely cause before that happens. So our choice must be to accept the reality of this tumultuous time and do our best to stand up for the values and norms that matter most to us. Our uncertainty about what will eventually come from today’s challenges – we can’t know, of course, so worry seems unproductive – is simply part of the reality of today’s America.
“Sticking with uncertainty is how we learn to relax in the midst of chaos, how we learn to be cool when the ground beneath us suddenly disappears,” Pema Chodron wrote. “Only with equanimity can we see that everything that comes into our circle has come to teach us what we need to know.”
It’s useful guidance in so many areas of our lives, including not just the decline of our political culture, but the threat to our democracy. And so we approach reality with equanimity, learn as we go, and do just what we can — but, for true peace of mind, no less than that.
NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Burlington, Vt. (Burlington Free Press, burlingtonfreepress.com)
Montgomery, Ala. (Montgomery Advertiser, montgomeryadvertiser.com)
Topeka, Kan. (Topeka Capital-Journal, salina.com)
Reno, Nev. (Reno Gazette Journal, rgj.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section, and The Upstate American Midweek Extra Edition, which is sent to email boxes most Wednesdays, are available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
State aims to help children born into poverty
About 2,000 children are born to impoverished families each year in Vermont, reports Megan Stewart in the Burlington Free Press. So the state treasurer, Mike Pieciak, wants the state to copy an initiative pioneered by Connecticut: a “baby bonds” program, that would set aside $3,200 for every child born to Medicaid recipients as a sort of nest egg. That money would be held in an omnibus account that could be withdrawn when that child is between ages 18 and 30 and used to purchase a home, obtain a higher education or job training, cushion their retirement or participate in “specific wealth-generating activities,” in Pieciak’s words. The goal is to give those impoverished newborns a bit of the financial security that other children have at birth.
Private radar stepping in for tornado warnings
In some areas of the Deep South that are prone to tornadoes, there’s a problem: too few radar stations. Radar can’t “see” storms at lower altitudes that are more than 80 miles away, reports Marty Roney in the Montgomery Advertiser, but there’s a gap in western Alabama, covering an area west of Selma, south of Tuscaloosa and through Meridian, then into eastern Mississippi. That area has radar coverage above 6,000 feet, but not at points where tornadoes get closer to the ground. So a private firm is stepping in, with the goal of profiting from private clients and from a contract with the National Weather Service. The Kentucky-based company, Climavision, wants to build a new radar installation about halfway between the Mississippi capital of Jackson and Alabama’s capital of Montgomery. Climavision is working on a nationwide network of weather radar coverage, to better warn people when tornadoes are about to touch down.
Monument proposed to honor construction workers who died
It took 37 years to complete construction of the state capitol building in Topeka, reports Jack Harvey of the Topeka Capital-Journal, and eight construction workers were killed in the process. Now a state panel is preparing a proposal to build a monument to those fallen workers. “If you can imagine walking along those steel beams when it's cold and icy, or over 100 degrees, in leather boots with wooden heels,” said an advocate. Some believe the capitol dome is the proper place for a memorial, since most of the deaths occurred near the top, and since it would give context to Capitol tours as they reach the top floors. But some members of the committee worry that could frighten tourists, and discourage them from stepping outside during tours.
Company finds a big deposit of lithium
As demand grows for batteries to power technologies from smartphones to vehicles, the federal government is eyeing domestic lithium deposits as both an economic opportunity and a national security boons. Now, reports Jason Hidalgo in the Reno Gazette Journal, the company that holds mining rights in Nevada’s Big Smoky Valley has revised upwards its estimate of the lithium deposits there — to suggest it could be one of the largest sources of lithium in the world. President Biden has named Nevada’s Loop Tech Hub or “lithium loop” as one of 31 federally recognized tech hub regions in the country, and there’s the promise of added investment from the CHIPS Act that Biden pushed through Congress to enhance America’s energy independence.
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