But Do Most Voters Care About Trump Disobeying the Three Norms of Presidential Behavior?

From a 2018 post on FiveThirtyEight titled “Forget Norms. Our Democracy Depends on Values,” by Julia Azari, associate professor of political science at Marquette University.

(Also worth reading is “Norms Matter: Turns out a lot of politics isn’t governed by written rules. Which was a good thing until now,” by Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College, in a 2017 post on Politico.com.)

Three categories of norms about presidential behavior tap into crucial aspects of democracy: respecting the independence of other institutions, acknowledging that political conflict is part of the process, and keeping private profit separate from government operations.

Independence of other institutions — American politics depends on the independence of the three formal branches of the national government. So any action that erodes that independence is worth worrying about. Of course, autonomy across branches has been a tricky subject. Presidents obviously try to influence Congress and even sometimes congressional primaries. Members of Congress try to influencepresidential elections. You might remember the Supreme Court getting involved in a presidential election. Because interbranch meddling has such a long history, norms may be a less powerful guideline than thinking about whether the president is trying to do something that will weaken the ability of other branches to challenge him.

Political conflict — Let’s see if we can thread this needle. First, the idea of legitimate opposition — that people can oppose and criticize the government without posing a threat to the nation — is a fundamental tenet of democracy. Trump’s violation of that norm has primarily taken the form of tweets about the media and about his Democratic opponents. Journalists and opposition party members have very different roles to play here, and the implications of presidential criticism is different for each. Efforts to delegitimize criticism of the president by the media are alarming (well, I might have a bit of a vested interest here), as are threats to jail opponents. Attacks on congressional Democrats, however nasty, may violate norms of civility but don’t necessarily threaten core democratic values.

After all, it’s the peaceful resolution of political disagreement — not the absence of dissenting views — that’s central to democracy. Corey Robin points out that sometimes norms are actually quite repressive, such as the informal rules and expectations that allowed American slavery to persist in the 19th century until the abolitionists “polarized society.” It’s the criminalizing of political dissent — either by attacking the opposition or denying its standing — that should be worrying.

Public and private — Since Trump won the 2016 election, there have been numerous examples of his family’s private business interests becoming intertwined with government operations. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway drew criticism for advertising Ivanka Trump’s clothing brand during a televised interview. The real estate dealings of the Trump Organization across the globe have made critics nervous. Trump’s hotels and resorts have become part of official state and government business, making it difficult to separate the president’s private business interests from the work of governing. These potential conflicts of interest have thus far attracted many questions and at least one lawsuit. This kind of behavior is constrained through a mix of formal and informal rules. Thus far, it’s proved difficult to rein in, despite widespread agreement that public officials should not profit from their positions.

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