Some Thoughts on Democratic Norms

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UPDATE: Comments back open.

My label-mate Jim Fallows, on the dangers of the Roberts court:


Liberal democracies like ours depend on rules but also on norms -- on the assumption that you'll go so far, but no further, to advance your political ends. The norms imply some loyalty to the system as a whole that outweighs your immediate partisan interest. Not red states, nor blue states, but the United States of America. It was out of loyalty to the system that Al Gore stepped aside after Bush v. Gore. Norms have given the Supreme Court its unquestioned legitimacy. The Roberts majority is barreling ahead without regard for the norms, and it is taking the court's legitimacy with it.
I agree with a lot of this -- and yet I wonder how it squares with history. I feel like a broken record, but on the front of anti-black prejudice, for roughly 100 years these norms were effectively abandoned. More to the point, that 100 years begins with an apocalyptic war which began because as an outright rejection of those norms. The epoch following is basically instance after instance of the country violating its democratic norms. 

Jim characterizes the current state of our politics as "a kind of long-term coup," in undemocratic (if constitutional) means are pedantically employed (the grand uptick in filibuster, for instance) to radical ends. And yet this sent me back to thinking on the only coup d'etat in American history. It was barely 100 years ago.

Or consider the following specimen:
We did not disfranchise the negroes until 1895. Then we had a constitutional convention convened which took the matter up calmly, deliberately, and avowedly with the purpose of disfranchising as many of them as we could under the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments. We adopted the educational qualification as the only means left to us, and the negro is as contented and as prosperous and as well protected in South Carolina to-day as in any State of the Union south of the Potomac. 

He is not meddling with politics, for he found that the more he meddled with them the worse off he got. As to his "rights" -- I will not discuss them now. We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be equal to the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him. I would to God the last one of them was in Africa and that none of them had ever been brought to our shores. But I will not pursue the subject further.
That is South Carolina Senator "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman. His address was not delivered in the backwoods of his home state, before a rally of Klansmen, but on the floor of the United States Senate (!) in 1900. The Tillman tradition of openly attacking democracy, and flouting the Constitution continued right up into the 1960s. And some would argue, that around the country, it continues to this very day.
All of this is to say, I wonder at the strength and nature of our democratic norms. Was there ever a time where our representatives seriously placed loyalty to democracy over partisan interests? And granting that there was, what was that compromise, that sacrifice, premised on? What undergirded our democratic virtue? Was it the promise that, in a country explicitly understood as constructed for the white man, the majority could never sink as low as the cursed minority? If we grant that the past few decades have been a particularly trying time for our democracy, is it mere coincidence that this happens just as African-American power begins to morph into reality? 

We know that Morgan effectively argued that American slavery was the midwife of American freedom? We know that our great senators John C. Calhoun...

With us the two great divisions of society are not rich and poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.

And Robert Byrd...

I am a typical American, a southerner and 27 years of age.... I am loyal to my country and know but reverence to her flag, BUT I shall never submit to fight beneath that banner with a negro by my side. Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory tramped in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throw back to the blackest specimen from the wilds.

Both found, at varying points in their lives, white supremacy to be central to the idea of America. And we know that Florida 200, has special meaning for African-Americans. And we know that the present issue can not be disentangled from race:

The findings presented show that racial attitudes were both an important determinant of white Americans' health care opinions in the fall of 2009 and that their influence increased significantly after President Obama became the face of the policy. Moreover, results from a nationally representative survey experiment show that racial attitudes had a significantly greater impact on health care opinions when framed as part President Obama's plan than they had when the exact same policies were attributed to President Clinton's 1993 health care initiative. Obama also appears to be driving the policy preferences of blacks and whites farther apart. With over 80 percent of African-Americans consistently supporting Obama's health care reform plan, the 2009-2010 racial divide in health care opinions was roughly 20 percentage points larger than it was for President Clinton's health care plan back in 1993-1994.

I don't know how it all connects. Maybe it doesn't. But I keep seeing this recurrence--most spectacularly in the Civil War--wherein great fights over our democracy, are so often close to fights over whiteness and blackness. 

Hopefully Jim will forgive my digression. Just thinking out loud, here.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

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