I remarked several days ago that there were two things on my mind that seemed to call for blog posts, one about which my thoughts were clear, the other not. I have blogged about the first – the deep state. Now Todd Gitlin’s reminder of C. Wright Mills’ observation that an independent civil service is necessary for a liberal democracy has prodded me to address the second. The topic, in a word, is norms.
The assaults by Trump on the Justice Department, his calls for the prosecution of Hillary Clinton, his egregious and seemingly endless efforts to monetize the office of the Presidency, and of course his bullying tweets, have all provoked a wide-ranging discussion among the commentariat about Trump’s violations of long-established norms of public conduct and decorum, norms that are not codified in federal law but which are appealed to as universally acknowledged constraints on the actions of public officials. Now, I am constitutionally sympathetic to any attack on Trump, but this appeal to norms has made me uncomfortable. For some time now I have been trying to articulate to myself just precisely what causes this discomfort, and although I am not at all satisfied by what I have told myself during my early morning walks, I am going to try to put my thoughts in some order in hopes of stimulating a discussion in this space.
The problem, in a nutshell, is this: For virtually my entire adult life, reaching back now more than sixty years, I have been calling out and condemning the hypocrisy of public officials who wrap themselves in the flag and congratulate themselves on their embrace of the ideals of “The American Experiment,” all the while spying on Martin Luther King, buying the nomination of JFK with ten dollar bills passed out in the West Virginia Democratic primary, overthrowing governments, covertly or overtly in the Old and New Worlds, torturing captives, lying the country into wars, gerrymandering Congressional districts, and generally violating every principle of justice and humanity ever articulated. Over time, the invocation of norms has come to trigger a gag reaction in me.
And yet, and yet.
Do I really reject the very idea of an impartial system of justice that protects the rights of the accused and imposes standards of evidence and due process in legal proceedings? Oh, I am well aware of the ways in which ostensibly impartial laws are crafted to protect the interests of the wealthy. Do not tell me that the rule of law is a bourgeois mystification of the class interests of capital. I have written books about that.
And yet, and yet.
Would I want to live in a society, even a socialist society, that dispensed with blind justice and instead dissolved all questions of law into debates over public policy? Do I imagine that once the excitement of the transformational moment had passed, routinized revolutionary fervor would serve as a satisfactory substitute for a public spirited commitment to norms of fairness, objectivity, and due process?
The answer is no. A liberal democracy does indeed need an independent civil service, a liberal socialist democracy more than any other.
And so I am left with my problem. How can I embrace the current condemnation of the violation of norms while at the same time insisting in calling to account those norm celebrators who were themselves, in better days, violators of those same norms? How on earth do you put an essay in a tweet, let alone on a bumper sticker?