But what makes the system work, and what breaks it?
These are urgent questions that were too easy for pundits to ignore before Trump made them unavoidable.
You hardly notice that everyone on the highway is taking turns merging until That Guy screams through, splitting lanes, leaning on his horn and rolling coal, with truck nuts flapping from his trailer hitch.
One problem with identifying the protection of political norms with the defense of democracy is that such norms are intrinsically conservative (in a small-c sense) because they achieve stability by maintaining unspoken habits—which institutions you defer to, which policies you do not question, and so on.
As Corey Robin pointed out when Levitsky and Ziblatt’s book appeared, democracy has essentially been a norm-breaking political force wherever it has been strong.
It has broken norms about who can speak in public, who can hold power, and which issues are even considered political, and it has pressed these points from the household and neighborhood to Congress and the White House.In another, it is whatever ties together a global wave of nationalist, xenophobic, and authoritarian governments, some of them in countries—such as Poland and even Russia—that not so long ago seemed to be case studies in liberal democracy.In a third sense, it is a great disappointment—a Return of History signaled by the blooming of tawdry kleptocracies dressed in many-hued flags and religious garments.But while all of these authors make some room for recent disruptions—the growth of inequality, the rise of social media, the backlash against immigration—they share a view that formed during the Cold War and seemed vindicated in 1989: that “democracy” means a cleaned-up version of what we do in the United States, complete with American-style capitalism, a word that hardly appears in these books because it is so deeply assumed.In this line of thought, which dates back at least to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s 1949 The Vital Center, a crisis of democracy requires a high-minded defense of the principled political center against the extremes of left and right.The underlying assumption of those who defend norms is that, at some very deep level, Americans have always agreed on the key issues, above all liberty and equality, and have just had to work out the kinks through the generations.That kind of thinking is a residue of the Cold War, when, as Aziz Rana observed in a brilliant essay earlier this year, the quest for ideological legitimacy in the battle against communism led both parties to suppress their radical wings and converge on a common language of American principles and constitutional destiny. The proliferating “crisis-of-democracy” literature, like the Fast and the Furious franchise, has only one plot.The strong-man populisms of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Narendra Modi in India, and, most ominously, Vladimir Putin in Russia, all became variations on the crisis of democracy. In one sense, it is whatever made Trump’s victory possible.Norms are like the statues of dead leaders: you can’t know whether you are for or against them without knowing which values they support.The very idea that it would be possible to analyze political developments in terms of the decline of stabilizing, trans-partisan norms rather than substantive ideology is a political position.