Posted by: Ray Brescia | January 3, 2019

2019 Is Shaping Up to Be the “Year of Institutions,” But What Would That Even Mean?


There’s been a lot of talk over the last two years about threats to the institutions of democracy.  When President Trump took office, outgoing President Obama passed on the message that the office of the presidency, as held, only temporarily, by individuals, should be occupied by “guardians of those democratic institutions and traditions — like rule of law, separation of powers, equal protection and civil liberties — that our forebears fought and bled for.”  Now-retired Senator Jeff Flake from Arizona echoed similar themes in a speech from the Senate floor from late 2017: “We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country.  The personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms and institution, the flagrant disregard for truth and decency.”  Now-out-of-work General Mattis issued a farewell letter to the military and civilian members of the Department of Defense, who, he argued, have a “sworn mission” to “support and defend the Constitution” while protecting Americans’ “way of life.” And in an opinion piece published in the Washington Post, Senator-Elect Mitt Romney argued that: “Our leaders must defend our vital institutions despite their inevitable failings: a free press, the rule of law, strong churches, and responsible corporations and unions.”  As the Mueller Investigation appears that it may be winding down, just as one Congressional chamber’s investigations, now under the control of House Democrats, may be ramping up, the role of our nation’s democratic institutions will certainly be tested in 2019, and it is possible that something as important as the state of American democratic values, and American society itself, may rest on those institutions’ durability and resiliency.

But what are institutions and how important are they to America’s future?  Recent works have explored the critical role that democratic institutions play in the long-term success of societies, like Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s “Why Nation’s Fail, The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty” and Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s “How Democracies Die.”  At the same time, while Americans may trust Congress, the press, the Presidency, and the courts less than they have in decades, it is in our laws, institutions, and the ideas they represent where our faith may still seems o reside; or, it is our belief in their importance where there might be some common ground on which a consensus could emerge to ensure a path forward rooted in democracy and the rule of law.  In a survey conducted soon after the 2016 election by the Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group, the most consistent finding across a range of questions was that most Americans appear to consider respect for American political institutions and laws an important aspect of being, well, American:

While there seems to be consensus around the importance of institutions, at times, there appears little consensus over what institutions are themselves.  According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, an institution is “a significant practice, relationship, or organization in a society or culture,” but it can also be “an established organization or corporation.” Complicating matters even further, some theorists, like Nobel Laureate Douglass North described institutions as “the rules of the game.”

So, the question becomes, are we talking about simple norms, like “civility,” concepts or practices such as the rule of law, or something more organizational, like Congress, or the courts, when we are talking about the institutions of democracy that must be deployed, defended, and utilized in case of a democratic and/or constitutional emergency?   If the United States may be headed for both, answering this question may be critical.  Furthermore, when norms, practices, and organizations are tested, they often work in conjunction, collaboratively, to sustain each other.  As such, they are co-dependent and reliant on each other to be sustained even in the face of challenges.  It is also the case that, even when institutions-as-organizations may work at cross-purposes, however, as antagonists, they can, in some ways, strengthen the institutional fabric because they represent disputes on institutional terms, and on institutional playing fields, endorsing the importance of the institutional “rules of the game” and the contexts in which such rules can be defined even as they may have disputes over them.

In these ways, the organizations, norms, and practices of our democracy ultimately work hand-in-hand across the different types of institutions that make up this institutional fabric.  Indeed, the organizations are where the norms are honored and the practices carried out.  Disregarding one will cause that fabric to unravel, which is why the threats to institutions are so insidious: compromising one institutional component of this fabric that makes up our democratic society can weaken it, causing it to rend.  That is why the defense of these institutions, across the board, must be so steadfast and resolute.  Perhaps the nation’s New Year’s Resolution for 2019 should be to defend, cultivate, and honor our democratic institutions, all of them, even if there is some disagreement at the margins over how we may define them.

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