The cost of abandoning norms

They are the glue that binds a society together

FOR OVER THREE YEARS we have watched as President Trump flouted norms of policy, civility, decency, and rule of law.  Unlike any president before him, Republican or Democrat, he ignores norms of good governance, standard practices of reliance on science and evidence, separation of powers, respect for executive agencies, regard for competence in public service, collaboration of federal and state governments, and dependence on rigorous policy analysis to help make wise decisions.

Some Republican lawmakers and conservative media flout norms as well, failing to hold this president accountable in even the most basic ways.

Many pundits, politicians, and voters have recoiled at these breaches, but really what was their impact?  For many on the right, this was sour grapes as this president kept “winning.”  People felt insulted.  Political discussions became more conflictual, more difficult. Partisanship increased. Family conversations at Thanksgiving were more awkward. So what?

Now we know.

Here’s what abandoning norms does. When a deep crisis hits, we cannot mobilize a competent clear-eyed response.

We do not have enough coronavirus tests.  We do not have enough hospital beds. We do not have enough masks, gloves, and ventilators. We have a populace that ignores the advice of those exact same experts who were denigrated. We have executive agencies unable to meet their mission and mandate.  We have state governments filling a vacuum of federal inaction with limited resources.  We have a director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has to correct lies on national forums in real time.  We have a commander-in-chief, in this war on a pandemic, who unabashedly expects favors from states in return for urgent life-saving federal action now needed to make up for federal missteps of more than a month ago.

But again, these are all just process problems stemming from a breakdown in norms.  Why does that matter?

Here is what it really means when norms are abandoned.  As of this writing, more than 390,000 people in the United States are infected with COVID-19. Over 12,700 in the US have died.  We have over 10 million people who have filed for unemployment in March, a freefall in the economy that we have not seen since the Great Depression.  We have thousands upon thousands of small businesses that have temporarily or permanently closed shop.  We have main streets in rural towns, and Broadway in New York City eerily silent.  We have courageous frontline health care providers reusing masks and gloves, and dying for lack of protective gear. We have the largest, strongest, and most diverse economy in the world grinding to a standstill.  Of course, the virus would have wrought terrible impacts regardless of what norms were followed, but when leadership ignores them on the scale we witness every day, the devastation becomes exponential and the curve does not flatten as fast as it would have.

Meet the Author

David W Cash

Dean, McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, UMass Boston
Norms are not abstract.  They are the glue that binds a society together so that when danger appears, we can rely on good governance in the public interest.  Abandon norms and wise decisions are no longer made.  Abandon norms and our corner store closes, our neighbors lose their jobs, and our loved ones die.

David W. Cash is the dean of the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston