Back in 1973 when I studied at Cal State Northridge, I took a sociology class. As an accounting major, I wasn’t really interested in sociology. Rather, I was interested in meeting girls as my other classes were male-dominated. While I failed to meet any interesting co-eds, the class really impacted my thinking over the years.
One of the concepts we learned about was social norms. Wikipedia defines a social norm as “…the accepted behavior that an individual is expected to conform to in a particular group, community, or culture. These norms often serve a useful purpose and create the foundation of correct behaviors.”
Our laws are based on social norms. Once historical norms are no longer followed, rules of law frequently change to follow suit.
A rational social change of norms and attitudes generally precedes groundbreaking legislation. A positive example of this was the civil rights movement and its impact on subsequent legislation ensuring rights for minorities.
But what if we have irrational social change?
Michael Lynch recently wrote a fascinating book entitled “Know-It-All Society,” wherein he discusses how norms are manipulated and how such manipulation has multiplied exponentially with the rise of social media.
Positive social change generally results from civic engagement where ideas are objectively debated. Lynch maintains that democracy needs an engaged electorate in order to properly function. An arrogant and uninformed (or misinformed) electorate generally cannot be engaged.
Social media tends to reinforce existing bias and suppress an analytic view of opposing ideas. It is commonly used to create an attitude of superiority while promoting a sense of insecurity.
Although this generates political support, it often comes at the cost of civic engagement by galvanizing opposing positions.
Consequently, the combined sense of superiority and insecurity makes the electorate (and elected members of government) incapable of meaningfully discussing and resolving important issues. For years we have chased our tails on important issues like health care, homelessness, immigration, etc., while special interests profit from our fecklessness and the resulting status quo.
Social media has allowed (or perhaps caused) politicians from both parties to become increasingly arrogant. Congress has been unsuccessful in passing legislation that effectively deals with many problems. The executive branch has become more powerful — to the point where such power is subject to abuse.
Presidential norms have shifted as well. The 2016 election saw a display of hubris by both candidates. Had Hillary Clinton won the election, is there any doubt that Bill would have collected substantial speaking fees or procured large donations for the Clinton Foundation from foreign governments and other special interests? If so, Congressional Republicans’ potential impeachment arguments would likely have had merit based on the emoluments clause.
We are now at the point of a constitutional crisis because the executive branch does not want to be held accountable for its actions.
If you are a Trump supporter and do not believe this, consider how you would feel if Hillary was president and she undertook similar acts. After all, it was not that long ago that Hillary was vilified by Republicans for Benghazi and her e-mail problems.
Watch the recordings of speeches given by Lindsay Graham and Nancy Pelosi in 1998 during the Clinton impeachment process. Today, they have traded each other’s talking points. Most people ignore this. The joint forces of arrogance and insecurity ensure that many people believe and recite the talking points of media that reinforces their preconceptions — even when those talking points change 180 degrees.
In his book, Lynch describes leaders who exacerbate social norms by exhibiting problematic psychological and ideological characteristics. Lynch seemingly describes President Trump as employing a political arrogance to provide his supporters with a feeling of power. Trump appeals to their sense of insecurity by making them feel that they are under attack. Trump also believes he is an infallible genius.
In my view, we must transcend politics to prevent an unfortunate shifting of government norms. That can only be accomplished by challenging the executive branch and following through on impeachment.
For those Republicans who believe I have turned on my former party, my views would not have differed much if the Clintons engaged in the activities I discussed above.
Even if the Senate does not vote to remove Trump, the impeachment process will still put future presidents on notice that there are bounds to their actions. Trump’s successors are likely to be less overt in their transgressions, but if Trump is not challenged, they will feel free to perpetuate unacceptable behavior based on Trump’s precedent.
Hopefully, an open impeachment process will expose a factual reality enabling the electorate to observe evidence before the 2020 election that is not filtered to perpetuate their biases.
I’m glad I took that class, because learning about social norms was more important than meeting girls.
Jim de Bree is a Valencia resident who seeks to promote civic engagement.