Eroding political norms is a good thing if the old norms violated fundamental rights

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:, or follow me on Twitter.


The authors want to posit the 1850s as a moment that “undermined America’s democratic norms,” strongly suggesting that prior to the 1850s, there was a robust enjoyment of democratic norms in America. Most of us would argue that when one portion of the people enslaves another, denying them their humanity (and the vote), there’s no real democratic norm in play. (Not to mention that one-half of the population, white and black, didn’t have the suffrage at all.) And while it would have been awfully nice if the southern slaveholders had simply agreed to vacate the stage of history peacefully, most of us realize that was never in the offing. Outside the South, wrote C. Vann Woodward, the end of slavery was “the liquidation of an investment.” Inside, it was “the death of a society.” These weren’t the sort of people to go gentle into that good night.
If American slavery were to be eliminated, someone had to call the question. That’s what the abolitionists (and the Republican Party) did. They polarized society. (For a representative example of how polarizing their discourse could be, read this.) And the result—however awful the Civil War was (and make no mistake, it was more awful than you can imagine)—was not the destruction of democracy and its norms but the creation of democracy —a “new birth of freedom,” Lincoln called it—which then got undone after Reconstruction, which was also a politics of norm-shattering.

As Jim Oakes has shown, the Southern Democrats were right to be terrified of the Republican Party, to see that party as an existential threat. The Republicans did want to destroy slavery, they did want to break the back of the slaveocracy, to gut a longstanding way of life. They wanted to do it peacefully, but they also understood that if war came, it would offer an opportunity to do it violently, an opportunity that they would not fail to seize. The Republicans were norm-breakers: they didn’t just want to limit the expansion of slavery into the territories (and whether limiting expansion of slavery was a norm in antebellum America is very unclear; in fact, we might say that the argument over that question was more the norm than any settlement of it; see Mark Graber’s book on Dred Scott); they wanted to limit that expansion as prelude to destroying the institution everywhere. Freedom national.

Levitsky and Zilblatt know that norm erosion and polarization were afoot during the 1850s. Only they want to put the onus entirely on the slaveholders. That way, they can take a stand against norm erosion without endorsing slavery; that way, they can pin the polarization of the era entirely on the Southern Democrats; that way, they can have their discourse of norm erosion and eat it, too. That’s politically understandable, in some sense, but wildly off the mark, historically.

…What the oped does is show what the real object of concern is in the discourse of norm erosion: not authoritarianism, as I said, but extremism—whether that extremism comes from slaveholders or abolitionists, the Republicans shutting down the government to deny people healthcare or the Democrats shutting it down to allow immigrants to live here. Both sides do it.

Post external references

  1. 1