Norms are essential in politics

Letter from the USA

By Lutchmiparsad Hazareesingh

There is no doubt that the US has just gone through one of its most tumultuous times as a result of Trump’s presidency.For many outside the US, his tenure was symptomatic of a hypocritical United States, preaching one thing overseas while doing exactly the opposite at home. Glossed over is the fact that Trump’s presidency as exemplar of bad governance was not an exception but the rule in most countries that like to call themselves democratic.

As many observers have pointed out, despite his abominable record, Trump came amazingly close to being re-elected. In 2016, a swing of 77,000 votes could have put Hillary Clinton in the White House.This time, a swing of 45,000 votes could have kept Trump in the White House.

Having averted a catastrophe, the US is slowly beginning to realize that there is such a thing as normalcy. And this normalcy is not only because a President Biden will observe all the laws. It is also because he is bringing back what are best viewed as soft laws, namely norms and traditions that have stood the test of time.

Politics in a democratic country is a very difficult proposition. Those who are in power are under constant attack and those who are not are constantly attacking. It is not unusual that this leads to retaliation. In functioning democracies, customs and traditions have evolved to mediate these interactions, creating a lane for meaningful deliberations, and compromises for the good of the country.

The famously hyper-critical duo of Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill didn’t shy away from going after each other in public but yet found ways to collaborate on legislation that moved the country forward. The same was true of Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich. But scandals and investigations, and the lust for power, have a way of breaking the fabric of the mediating strands holding the collaborating lane together. Over time, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party have each accused each other of violating one norm or the other leading to a downward spiral of death, which culminated in the election of the most incompetent and most destructive candidate in many, many years.

This should be a warning to politicians the world over, one that they will most likely not heed, but which should be obvious: Democracy is not a one-day thing where people vote, results are announced and everyone go their merry way. Democracy is a system that works only when there is a modicum of honour, of respect for traditions and of one’s opponents, and where there is a constant effort on everyone’s part to stick to rules.

Trump, with all his millions, and all his moneyed friends, is leaving Washington in ignominy not only for himself but his entire family. That’s the revenge of democracy that he never contemplated. Politicians rarely do.

* Published in print edition on 22 January 2021

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