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. . . .Is this right? I mean, what about the 1960s? We have our problems now but the assassination of major public figures hasn't been one of them. But maybe the shadow of the Cold War did impress on the political system that the president had to be a "man of stature," someone who could sit at those all important summits without embarrassing us.
Even when norms do not lean to the right—for instance, the norm of honoring previous Supreme Court decisions is part of the reason the right to abortion established in Roe v. Wade has not been overturned—they are a depoliticized way of talking about political conflict. 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. 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 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 structural buttresses of that world have been crumbling since 1989, but it took a long time to fall. The year 2016 brought the first genuinely post–Cold War election: the perennial carnage of American capitalism, intensified by forty years of growing inequality, prepared the ground for Bernie Sanders’s socialism, while the nativism and racism that had slunk just outside respectable politics returned full-throated. What unifies the crisis-of-democracy genre is the failure to understand this, that the present moment is not an anomalous departure but rather a return to the baseline—to the historical norm, one might say.
I do agree that extreme partisanship is not at all unusual in history; we had it in the 1850s and the 1930s. But perhaps those comparisons are not encouraging.
I end up back where I often do, thinking that the really important divide in America is between those who want some kind of radical shake-up and those who don't. I don't, so I would like polite discourse and compromise. But if I did I would probably say to hell with manners, let's start smashing things.