It’s hardly news anymore when President Trump breaks with democratic customs. His willingness to violate norms has been well covered throughout his time in office, and these violations can undermine democratic values, damage public trust in the press and potentially compromise the independence of institutions like the FBI.
But now it’s not just Trump who’s violating norms. On Jan. 23, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi took the unusual step of rescinding Trump’s invitation to deliver the State of the Union address until the government was reopened. And yes, now the government is open and Trump will deliver his address on “a mutually agreeable date.” But what this episode encapsulates is how the Trump presidency has put others in the position of having to decide between adhering to norms and standing up for democratic values (at least as they see them).
To some extent, the subject of the fight is irrelevant. The State of the Union is a cherished democratic tradition, depending on who you ask, but even I’ll argue that it isn’t vital. The address does give both parties1 an opportunity to lay out their priorities before the American people, but it rarely affects policy or public opinion. Rather, it’s the reasons Pelosi threatened to cancel the address that matter. Pelosi’s disinvitation of Trump highlights the extent to which politics has become a clash between the two parties.
The demise of loyal opposition
In 2017, The Weekly Standard’s Jay Cost asked: “How do we oppose the current wielders of authority while affirming that their possession of that authority is legitimate?” It’s a question with no easy answer, but it recognizes that democracy requires that those with opposing viewpoints be able to argue — even to the point of incivility — without their disagreement jeopardizing democracy’s survival.
Loyal opposition, in other words, is the idea that the conflicting sides can compete and debate without seriously challenging the legitimacy of the system.
The question of loyal opposition has posed a dilemma for Democrats since Trump took office. Early on, some suggested that they could work with the president on shared priorities. Others questioned the legitimacy of his presidency because of the sexual misconduct allegations that have been made against him, the policies of his administration, and the circumstances surrounding his election. But in the shutdown debate, we saw this dilemma come to life in a new way.
While the just-ended 115th Congress passed some bipartisan measures, at the end of 2018, Democrats and Republicans reached an impasse over funding for Trump’s border wall because of its larger symbolic meaning for both parties. Ultimately, Trump decided to shut down the government until Democrats met his demands. It’s true that a government shutdown is a kind of “constitutional hardball” that Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky discuss in their book “How Democracies Die,” but Pelosi also violated a norm by disinviting Trump.
Pelosi’s decision meant she cost the two parties an opportunity to work together and challenged the democratic value of loyal opposition, but at the same time, she bolstered another democratic value at stake here: the independence of Congress as a coequal branch of government.
Restoring coequal branches
A casual observer of American politics might conclude that the president is at the center of the operation. Presidents get blame and credit for the economy, they get policies nicknamed for them, and they have increasingly taken control of foreign policy. For years, experts on American government have called for a stronger Congress to check the growing power of the executive branch. The State of the Union, in particular, has evolved to match this trend of presidential expansion.
But this year is different. Pelosi’s decision to rescind her invitation2 has highlighted Congress’s role in the process and reaffirmed its status as a coequal branch of government. And perhaps it has also drawn attention to the idea that while the State of the Union, and the government in general, have become heavily focused on the presidency, it doesn’t have to be that way.
Norms have long protected the presidency-centric nature of the government — no one expected Congress not to invite the president to speak — but by forgoing this norm, Pelosi dispelled the notion that Congress answers to the White House.
This is bigger than the State of the Union
The recently sworn in 116th Congress will have more opportunities to choose between bipartisanship and holding the party line. So long as Trump is president, some congressional Democrats are likely to feel a tension between their aversion to disrupting the usual procedures and the pressure not to compromise with the administration.
Even under these highly polarized conditions, symbolic acts like the State of the Union can create a superficial sense that things are normal. In contrast, the exchange between Pelosi and Trump is a rare example of how the symbols of normality can sometimes be broken down to match the underlying dynamics of the situation. And while it’s back to business as usual for now, this fight underscores how breaking norms sometimes actually protects democratic values.