Editor’s Note: Former US Rep. Steve Israel, a Democrat from New York, is a political novelist and CNN contributor. His next book, “Big Guns,” will be released in April. This piece is one in a series of columns for CNN Opinion on life after Congress. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.
Steve Israel: Those who support norms of politics, governance and society are fighting those who seek to destroy them
If we're not careful, the Denormocrats -- led by Donald Trump -- may irreparably damage our democracy, writes Israel
In the last two weeks, a politically extraordinary sequence of events has occurred in a politically exhausting year, perhaps marking the early formation of a new electoral dividing line.
Last week, two former Presidents – Democrat Barack Obama and Republican George W. Bush – gave side by side speeches chastising the politics of Donald Trump. The overture to these events was Republican Sen. John McCain’s strong repudiation of the core elements of Trumpism.
And on Tuesday morning, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, told CNN that Trump was a man who had “great difficulty with the truth” and who he would not support in an election again. Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, announced he would not seek re-election in 2018, citing Trump and his dangerous tweeting as part of the reason for his decision.
Meanwhile, the President and his backers stuck to their script: remaining entangled in a fight with a military widow and continuing longstanding feuds with senators from his own party – including Corker and Flake, all while his agenda largely stalls in Congress.
The orthodoxy that this is a struggle between “populists” and “establishment” is mislabeled. It’s a broader conflict pitting those who support the norms of politics, governance and society against those who seeking to destroy them.
The “Normicon Party” favors respect for civility, stable institutions, and ethical codes that generate scorn when flouted. Normicons try to subordinate immediate emotion to long-held spiritual tenets. Boxing is a sport for the Normicons: They may not watch it, but they understand the point of its rules, referees and judges.
The “Denormocrat Party” embraces strength through attack, assaults on institutions, and the flouting of rules and regulations. Denormocrats are willing to suspend long-held spiritual tenets for short-term emotional gain. Cage fighting is a sport for the Denormocrats: They may not watch it, but they identify with its full contact and minimalist rules.
Normicons are Democrats and Republicans who wince at the thought of a president threatening to revoke licenses of media platforms that may be unkind at times. Denormocrats are Democrats and Republicans who see the media as just another elite institution protecting the status quo (with the exception of platforms that reinforce their opinions).
Normicons see stability through order. Denormocrats see disorder as salvation.
Both Normicons and Denormocrats have a remarkable ability to short circuit their own memories. Denormocrats were generally hawkish and once viewed a strong Russia as a menace. Their support for Trump now makes them less likely to be bothered by Moscow’s attempts to sway the 2016 election. Normicons generally supported diplomatic engagement with Russia. Their opposition to Trump now make them more likely to see Putin as a menace.
Normicons and Denormocrats can be both left and right politically, but respond to different areas of their brains. Normicons may skew to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is active when making conscious choices including reasons, benefits and probabilities. Denormocrats may be more guided by the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which uses emotion to influence decision-making and displays less guilt for harm to others. Firmly placed in the minds of each is the idea that the other is out of their minds.
In the brewing battle, there are no red or blue states – it’s black and white. Facts on both sides are inconvenient distractions from absolute truths and impulses.
The question is how far this will go and how long it will last, and whether abnormal convergences since 2008 – the radically changing economy, the breakdown of faith in institutions, the reshaping of the media, the fear of violence at home and abroad and the marginalization of democracy – will sustain the growth of the Denormocrat Party. History is replete with horrific examples. And barring a catastrophic outcome, it’s easier to devolve from a position of supporting norms to a position of destroying them than the other way around.
It’s vital that Bush, Obama, McCain, Corker, Flake and others continue speaking out forcefully. But there’s risk even in that. Trump, the de facto leader of the Denormocrat Party, thrives on using the dividing lines drawn by his opponents to embolden his followers. Every response to his incendiary tweets gives his movement more proof of their self-evident truths: It’s the preservationists of the status quo versus the protectors of survival instincts.
In the end, the Normicons will win the war, because the pendulum generally favors the norms over the long term and our nation’s Founders built our institutions to last. However, the victory may come at a great cost. Like in most wars, one side has introduced lethal new weaponry, which can ultimately be used by the other. If we’re not careful, if we don’t reinvigorate civic engagement, spur economic mobility and restore the health and vibrancy of our institutions, we may find ourselves in an arms race to the bottom of the soul of democracy.