In Defense of Norms and Institutions
When we act like we are living through an apocalypse, we risk denigrating the very institutions that can guide us through crises.
The unprecedented leak of a full-draft majority opinion in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health abortion case, and the reaction to the likelihood that Roe v. Wade will be overturned, should cause us to think hard about how we use institutions to accomplish our goals.
Over centuries, America has developed and adapted an array of organizations and practices that enable our unusual nation to succeed. It is not blind luck that this extraordinarily diverse, continental republic conceived in liberty has thrived: Our magnificent combination of principles including democracy, decentralization, separation of powers, the rule of law, liberty, and civil society is only possible because we have legislatures, the 10th Amendment, courts, boards of elections, the First Amendment, tradition, and voluntary associations that bring these to life. And these can function only when we respect the beliefs and behaviors that sustain them. But over the last eight years, I’ve witnessed wildly divergent perspectives on the value of these institutions and their norms.
In that time, I’ve lived a double life. My primary work has been in the world of researching and writing about policy, political, and social issues. But I’ve also been involved in inside-the-government public service, having been appointed and confirmed to seats on three state-level boards. Though the content of these two professional worlds has been similar—grappling with issues of authority, community, resources, equality, freedom, opportunity—the practice has not. One of the biggest differences is the apocalyptic thinking and support for norm-breaking that has all but overtaken the commentariat.
In my public service roles, I’ve been surrounded by people with high self-efficacy and agency. They appreciate that we face challenges, often serious ones, but they believe these can be solved. They don’t see the end of the world around every corner. They understand that the institution they serve is tasked with solving a set of problems, so they work through that institution to get things done.
They also appreciate that the institution has existed for ages and has developed systems for doing its job. These can be formal rules as well as informal practices and codes of conduct. At any moment, someone could violate a norm in order to gain a quick advantage. But that seldom happens. There seems to be agreement that those norms exist to facilitate the institution’s work; to break the norm is to debilitate the institution. There also seems to be a recognition that we are merely the current occupants of seats that were filled by others before us and will be filled by others after we leave. We are temporary contributors to a longstanding body, and we have obligations to the past and future: Breaking a norm discards the wisdom of our predecessors and inhibits our successors.
But there is a different sensibility today in what used to be thought of as the world of ideas. A quick survey of the essays, articles, podcasts, and social-media feeds of those arguing about policy, politics, and society would lead you to believe that the end times are upon us. They tell us that important public bodies are inept or corrupt, schools are broken, culture is debased, opponents are villains. Obviously, some commentators today are still sober-minded and sanguine. But the now-common posture of panic and cynicism is often coupled with the conviction that we must upend institutions and the norms that sustain them. There have been calls to end liberalism, abolish the Senate, defund the police, expand the Supreme Court, end public education, and reclaim the public square for the common good.
We can see on the far ends of the political spectrum the shared belief that radicalism is the proper, even the necessary, response to conditions today. A common thread runs through the arguments made by those defending violent protests, efforts to overturn elections, denigrating the Constitution, and equating nonconforming opinions with violence: Things are so bad that we are justified in undermining America’s rules of the game.
It’s bad enough that the commentary industry has taken this dark turn, but the greater concern is that, like so much that starts in the world of ideas, this mindset is migrating into the world of governing. Though the Supreme Court leak is front of mind, we shouldn’t forget the anti-institutional behavior of former President Trump, the extremism of some members of Congress, or the laundry list of norm-breaking conduct and proposals by activists in recent years.
I’m not arguing against passionate dissent. To flourish, societies need space for some norm-breaking and civil disobedience, which force us to have conversations about established ways and then secure, modify, or replace them. But the pervasive apocalyptic mindset (either “Everything is burning!” or “We need to burn it all down!”), and the disrespect for institutions and norms it engenders, corrodes public life, making it harder and harder for different people to live together, much less get things done together. We should keep three things in mind when we see flagrant norm-breaking and the mentality that fosters it.
First, fevered diagnoses lead to sweeping, certain prescriptions, and that ends productive conversation. When we open the bidding with, “That threatens Western civilization!” or, “You are on the wrong side of history!” we give ourselves permission to fight for fanatical interventions and denigrate anyone who disagrees. This kind of “existential talk” has the same stultifying effect as the “rights talk” Mary Anne Glendon wrote about 30 years ago. When every matter is framed as right-wrong, good-evil, or just-unjust there is no room for accommodation, civility, deliberation, or compromise. Ratcheting up the stakes ratchets down our reliance on institutions and norms. When everything is elevated to the level of saving the republic, protecting human dignity, or advancing social justice, then lying, insulting, doxing, leaking, burning, and assaulting seem to be warranted.
Second, justice is not simply about outcomes; how we reach outcomes matters. When we convince ourselves that we’re facing ruin and ours are the only solutions, we tend to believe that the desired result is everything. We lapse into ends-justify-the-means thinking. But for millennia, systems of justice have included notions of proper behavior. They tell us, for example, to not bear false witness, to treat others as we would be treated, to never act as though another person is merely a means to an end. Deontic and virtue theories tell us what we ought to do and how we ought to live. The principle of subsidiarity, which focuses on authority and duty, is understood in Catholic social doctrine to be an essential component of justice. The procedures that are part of due process—not just whether criminal trials end with the right verdict—are core to the criminal justice system. In other words, mountains of scholarship and experience teach us that justice requires more than getting your desired result by any means necessary.
Third, those warning about Armageddon and peddling a fix almost always live in the world of abstractions. The direst assessments and predictions and most radical proposals typically come from those with little to no experience in the actual work of public leadership. Often this is because the business model of the commentary world rewards overstatement. But it’s also the case that public service generally leads the servant toward prudence. The practical wisdom that comes from facing real-world problems, teaming with others to develop workable solutions, and being held accountable for results reduces the urge to catastrophize. Those shaped by experience are likelier to think in terms of specifics instead of concepts, to see concrete choices instead of memes, to appreciate opponents as people instead of avatars.
In some circles today, radical theories, imprudence, intemperate and uncompromising language, and ends-justify-the-means behavior are celebrated. They are seen as the way to bring about justice or the common good. But we are not the first generation to care about such things. Our predecessors handed down to us organizations, principles, and codes of conduct that help our people flourish. Before breaking a norm, we’d be well served to consider all of the reasons it exists and the serious, long-term damage done by flouting it.