We’re in a political moment that’s anything but normal. The usual expectations for how politics, and life in general, operate are pretty much all on hold, and America is dealing with a lot of anxiety about politics.
First, there’s the Trump administration’s ever-changing response to the coronavirus. Then there’s the question of how individual states are handling (or not handling) the crisis, and lastly, there’s the very real question of how our democracy will function come the general election in November. Already we’ve seen the first cracks, with a number of states deciding whether and how to postpone their primaries and local elections. The political infighting will likely get worse, too, as states try to figure out how to ensure a safe election, and in many cases, there may not be any easy answers.
In times of crisis, a lot of rules and expectations wind up getting shifted or bent. For instance, disasters sometimes lead people to give up freedoms they otherwise treasure or rally around leaders they normally oppose. But crises also have a funny way of underscoring which values are actually vital to our democracy.
In 2018, I wrote about the importance of democratic values and how they are what actually matters when we talk about norms being violated or eroded. And I offered a few examples of democratic values that have been at the root of some of the early (and ongoing) complaints about the Trump administration, including President Trump’s disregard for other institutions’ independence (think his clashes with Congress about fulfilling its oversight duties) or his inability or unwillingness to gracefully handle dissenting viewpoints as part of the political process (think insulting reporters and using unflattering nicknames for political opponents).
Now, though, in this moment of crisis, a whole new set of norms is coming into tension with our democratic values, once again highlighting which values are most at risk. Take the controversy around former Vice President Joe Biden’s relative silence during the COVID-19 crisis. The presumptive Democratic nominee has kept a low profile, sparking criticism in some corners that he’s failing to lead, but his behavior is arguably in line with expectations of how a presumptive nominee should act — i.e., don’t criticize a sitting president in a crisis or campaign during a moment of national tragedy. But Biden’s decision to not do more to question Trump’s leadership of the crisis might run afoul of deeper values, like the need for transparency and the importance of a vibrant political opposition.
As political scientist Jonathan Bernstein has observed, Trump has never been very good at the ceremonial part of his job, or offering reassurance and messages of national unity. But both are central functions of presidential rhetoric, especially in times of uncertainty and stress. Yet Trump has been combative and inconsistent in his leadership, and Biden has made only limited efforts to fill this symbolic void. Norms say we must rally around leaders and suspend politics in emergencies, but by remaining silent, Biden may be risking the larger democratic value of holding our leaders accountable.
We’ve also seen the script flipped in this crisis, though, where Trump isn’t actually violating some norms — he’s holding a White House press briefing pretty much daily, for instance, which falls in line with norms we have about how the president should communicate with the public. Yet Trump has still managed to subvert the norms of presidential behavior in a way that attacks democratic values.
He has insulted both members of the press and leaders of the Democratic Party, undercutting the idea of legitimate opposition — that is, the give-and-take of political conflict between different parties and the press who holds them accountable. He’s even asserted authority over the nation’s governors, disregarding the distinct powers of state and local governments in the federal system (and tweeting about “liberating” some states from rules set by their governors). He’s also brought numerous CEOs from private companies to the press conferences, where they’ve both praised the president and mentioned their brands — violating a norm that public purposes and private interests should be kept separate. This is less an instance of norms clashing with democratic values and more an indication that going through the standard motions of governing doesn’t necessarily guarantee respect for the principles of democracy.
And at a time when extreme measures need to be taken, honesty and transparency from our government leaders is critical to helping the public understand what’s happening and why sacrifices are needed to protect the nation. Yet Trump’s talking points, especially early in the crisis, have often undermined the recommendations of experts. For instance, he initially downplayed the seriousness of the COVID-19 threat and has repeatedly talked about “reopening” the economy even though public health experts say states lack the resources to do so safely. This means some governors, including New York’s Andrew Cuomo, Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer and Ohio’s Mike DeWine, have drawn the national spotlight for their leadership during the crisis. But governors’ leadership may only go so far in encouraging national unity in the face of this crisis, and without a unifying message from Trump, a wider national effort to combat the virus may fall apart.
The second big area where we’ve seen norms and democratic values clash is in our elections. Under normal circumstances, changing the timing or method of an election at the last minute would be a deeply anti-democratic move. But governors in several states concluded that the public health dangers posed by the virus were significant enough to merit postponing contests to avoid the risks of in-person voting. And this was actually an important example of upholding a democratic value — the right of all voters (including those most at risk from COVID-19) to have equal access to the polls — at the expense of the norm that election dates shouldn’t be moved once they’re set. But the decision to forego this norm and postpone an election can morph into a highly political affair, jeopardizing the very real democratic value — preserving fair and safe elections — that leaders were hoping to protect.
Take what happened in Wisconsin’s primary. It was always going to be a bit trickier for Wisconsin to postpone voting than other states because it wasn’t just primaries on the ballot — the state was also holding elections for several local offices whose terms begin on April 20, meaning the election had to take place before then. But part of the difficulty also lay in just how much bad blood exists between Gov. Tony Evers and the Republican legislature, which always made it seem unlikely that they would reach an agreement on how best to balance the health risks of holding an election with the risk that delaying the election posed to democratic norms. And sure enough, Republicans successfully challenged Evers’s last-minute emergency order to postpone the primary, with the state Supreme Court striking the order down.
That meant the Wisconsin primary proceeded as scheduled on April 7, but it was a mess. Polling places closed throughout the state due to the lack of poll workers, and voters were forced to stand in long lines. Turnout was also down in several parts of the state (though not everywhere). Perhaps the one silver living was the huge surge in absentee ballots returned, but ultimately the Election Day debacle in Wisconsin highlighted the challenges the nation might face in November, in particular how elections risk becoming a source of partisan division.
Crises can make it hard for our leaders to operate according to the usual political norms, but they also have a way of crystallizing the importance of our democratic values even when the two are seemingly in opposition. When the government steps outside its usual boundaries, special attention to core democratic values like transparency, equality and the role of legitimate opposition is needed. And the backdrop of crisis makes it easier to see which informal rules are simply the product of routine and expectations and which are crucial for making our democracy work.