Much to my long-suffering wife’s disappointment, there is no law against a person farting in a bed occupied by two people. However, as she is inclined to remind me, generalized unwritten rules of marital bliss dictate that one refrain from offensive emissions. I value my wife and am quite content to stay married to her, so I do my best to treat her with respect and to restrain myself from breaking the norms of marital behavior.
The unwritten rules, norms, that govern and maintain peace in our lives often go unnoticed until broken. For example, if I accidentally step on your toe as I pass you in a hallway, it is expected that I will say “excuse me” and offer a moment of attention and acknowledgement of your discomfort. For your part, I don’t expect that you will sue me for battery as the result of an unintentional bump, although the law may well entertain such an action. Instead, in most cases, my apology is sufficient. We do this because it maintains the social fabric that allows our society to function despite the harms, insults, and embarrassments that we sometimes inflict upon each other. If either of us fails to play our part in the unwritten rules of our interaction, trust is broken and we are left with anger and feelings of being wronged.
Although I spend a lot time in conflict in my law practice, there are some unwritten rules that govern behavior between lawyers that make a big difference in preserving our sanity and our ability to civilly resolve our clients’ disputes. First, contrary to what you may have seen on television, good lawyers don’t fight about unimportant things and we don’t insult each other. If opposing counsel needs a few extra days to complete a response to a motion or lawsuit, it’s bad form to deny the request. When opposing counsel makes a foolish mistake, a good lawyer will avoid humiliating him or her in front of their client. Perhaps most importantly, we don’t lie to each other. A lawyer who breaks these unwritten rules will soon find him or herself ostracized within the legal community and judges take a very dim view of such behavior.
Behavior norms and restraints are rapidly decaying in American government. Harvard Political Science professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their recently published book How Democracies Die provide a detailed history and warn us that loss of democratic norms and restraints is historically associated with the collapse of democracy and the rise of authoritarian rule.
A dysfunctional president, a bad Supreme Court Justice, or an indentured Congress might give us poor policy and temporarily strain the boundaries of our democracy, but they are unlikely to cause the demise of democracy or give rise to authoritarian rule. However, the loss of unwritten norms and restraints on our behavior towards one another increases the polarization in our society and in our government, which is measurably leading to the breakdown of democracy.
This is not a party issue or an issue of conservative versus liberal or of Democrat versus Republican. This is about whether we continue to exist as a democracy. In the time that I’ve been writing this piece, the news has exploded with comments between two prominent politicians from different parties who are arguing about who would win a fist fight. This type of rhetoric is ridiculous and is destroying us. Playing “hardball” with a “the other side is the enemy who must be destroyed at all costs” mentality is what happens when democracies are failing. We need to put a stop to calls to lock up political rivals and stop delegitimizing anyone outside our camp or who challenges an idea or tradition. Such calls are a return to McCarthyism and have no place in our democracy.
American democracy is not going to be saved by our politicians, at least not as long as voters continue to mistake norm breaking, obstruction, and lack of restraint for vision, commitment, and leadership. It is up to each of us to do what we can to reduce the polarization and to turn away from those who would have us depart from the unwritten norms and restraint that are foundational to functional democracy. We have to say “enough” to the politics of obstructionism and delegitimization. We have to reject the idea that our patriotism is measured by our political party affiliation, our religion, our skin color, our ideas of public policy, or even in what position we sing the national anthem. I believe that true patriotism is measured by our commitment to each other and to the democratic norms and restraint that have historically allowed our nation to survive. The choice is ours, we can continue to fart in the bed, enraging our partners until they reach the breaking point, or we can exercise some restraint and civil behavior and maintain the relationship.