In the aftermath of the Kavanaugh nomination battle and the run-up to the 2018 midterms, many Americans are fretting over the health of our political institutions. “The Supreme Court’s legitimacy crisis is here,” Vox proclaimed this month. “The Electoral College has to go,” The Hill declared after the 2016 election. Perhaps most worrying, a recent poll released by NPR/Marist revealed that nearly half of American voters—and 60% of non-white voters—“think it is either likely or very likely that not all votes will actually be counted in November.”
But the political institutions that are most endangered are not those enshrined in the Constitution. They’re the institutions that exist around and in between our laws and regulations: what political scientists refer to as “informal institutions.” And long before our current political battles, the internet was destabilizing the informal institutions on which American democracy depends.
Why Informal Institutions Matter
In “Informal Institutions and Comparative Politics,” Gretchen Helmke and Steven Levitsky define informal institutions as “social shared rules, usually unwritten, that are created, communicated, and enforced outside of officially sanctioned channels.” In “Unwritten Rules,” Julia R. Azari and Jennifer K. Smith encapsulate this definition as meaning that “informal institutions exist when shared expectations outside the official rules of the game structure political behavior.”
It is these informal institutions that have been undermined in recent years. Informal institutions that have undergone dramatic shifts in the past two years include the expectation that politicians will keep their speeches and comments at least vaguely tied to some (very elastic) notion of truthfulness, the expectation that presidential candidates will share their tax returns with the press and public, and the conventional wisdom that political leaders must avoid racist, homophobic, or misogynist hate speech in order to be electable.
Looking at these developments through the lens of informal institutions reveals how profound and durable these changes are likely to be. As Helmke and Levitsky point out, any political analysis that overlooks the role of informal institutions “risks missing much of what drives political behavior”: When we treat Trump’s deviations from political norms as quirks rather than institutional change, we miss the extent to which he is actually redrawing the foundation of our political system.
That’s not because informal institutions are more important than formal rules, but rather, as Helmke and Levitsky note, because the two are intimately intertwined:
Since the Federalist Papers, scholars have recognized that the norms underlying formal institutions matter. The stability of the United States’ presidential democracy is not only a product of the rules laid out in the Constitution, but is also rooted in informal rules (such as gracious losing, the underuse of certain formal prerogatives, and bipartisan consensus on critical issues) that prevent formal checks and balances from deteriorating into severe conflict among the branches of government.
By disregarding any institution that is not engraved in law (as well as some that are), Trump has effectively proven that many of the institutions that are central to American democracy exist only to the extent we agree to abide by certain norms. In other words, much of our political system is like Tinkerbell: If we stop believing in it, it ceases to exist.
The Internet and Objective Truth
But Trump didn’t effect this change single-handedly; the Internet had already set the stage by destabilizing many of the informal institutions that are now in tatters. To understand how that happened, let’s start with one of the most astonishing hallmarks of our current age: The rapid disappearance of any baseline respect for objective truth.
Sure, politicians have often stretched the truth, but Trump’s statements are in a whole other league: Politifact rates 69% of Trump’s statements as “Mostly False,” “False,” or “Pants on Fire.” (By comparison, only 47% of Vice-President Mike Pence’s statements are found to be false; for Mitch McConnell, it’s 42%, and for President Obama, it was 24%.)
It’s no coincidence that the bottom fell out of our presidential truthiness standards just after social media usage reached near-pervasive levels. As Stephan Lewandowsky, Ullrich K. H. Ecker, Colleen M. Seifert, Norbert Schwarz, and John Cook write in “Misinformation and its Correction“:
The Internet has revolutionized the availability of information; however, it has also facilitated the spread of misinformation because it obviates the use of conventional “gate-keeping” mechanisms, such as professional editors. This is particularly the case with the development of Web 2.0, whereby Internet users have moved from being passive consumers of information to actively creating content on Web sites such as Twitter and YouTube or blogs.
By normalizing the dissemination of inaccurate or misleading information, the internet set the stage for President Trump: Once you’re accustomed to seeing false information pop up in your Facebook feed or email inbox every day, it’s less shocking to hear lies spewing from the head of your government.
As for the novel phenomenon of a modern president trafficking in racist or misogynist hate speech: Well, what would you expect from a guy who spends so much time on Twitter? In “Commanding the Trend: Social Media as Information Warfare,” Jarred Prier chronicles how the weaponization of social media has, among other things, led to the proliferation of online racist hate speech, including a concerted campaign “to discredit the Obama administration while spreading racist memes and hoaxes aimed at the African American community.” The mainstreaming of hate speech online, I suspect, readied Americans for hate speech from the mouth of their Commander-in-Chief.
Freedom of the Press
Last but not least, let’s look at Trump’s willingness to abandon the rhetorical tradition of respecting freedom of the press: Who might have imagined a President explicitly questioning the right to independent journalism?
Well, anyone who’s paid attention to the evolving battles over media freedom online. As Eugene Volokh chronicles in “Freedom for the Press as an Industry, or for the Press as a Technology?” successive generations of technological change have opened up a distinction between freedom of the press as applying to those in the media industry, and freedom of the press as a broader notion of free speech. Volokh notes that “the bulk of the precedent points toward equal treatment for all speakers—or at least to equal treatment for all who use mass communications technology, whether or not they are members of the press-as-industry.”
And as Jeffrey S. Nestler writes in “The Undeprivileged Profession,” “with the advent of the Internet and blogs, the line between journalist and tech-savvy citizen is continually blurred.” While broadening our notion of “the press” may have seemed like a democratizing tendency (I certainly thought so!), it’s now apparent that it also served to de-sanctify the social role of journalists, and thus, to set the stage for a president who is prepared to violate a once-sacrosanct norm.
But if the internet set the stage for Trump’s rapid sweeping away of so many informal institutions, perhaps it will also facilitate the diffusion and institutionalization of a new set of norms. That begins with building a political culture that reflects the experiences and values of a citizenry that is far more diverse than America’s celebrated Founders. While many of our traditional political institutions emerged out of “gentlemen’s agreements” among an elite group of comfortably propertied white men, our next generation of institutions can—thanks to the internet—acknowledge and accommodate the very real pain of many of America’s citizens. As Dorothy Kim writes in her contribution to “Race, Gender and the Technological Turn,”
the potential for revolution in these social media platforms (as Twitter has first shown us, and now as it transforms other platforms like Facebook) is going to be about communicating the pain of these digital bodies. Celebrating beyond pain seems at the moment a utopic dream. Rather, organizing and creating revolution in these digital spaces will require that we acknowledge pain and find community with other black, indigenous, WOC, queer, non-Christian, trans, and differently-abled (i.e., intersectional) feminists, who will not flinch from addressing it and will make sure these platforms are dominated by that message of pain.
We can also attend to the perversities of our emergent political culture, ensuring that the institutions we develop for an increasingly digital democracy mitigate and channel the internet’s worst excesses. In “Shoring Up a Democracy Under Siege,” Laleh Ispahani and Sarah R. Knight write that:
With credible reporting and fake news competing for our attention through social media pipelines that do little to help us distinguish between the two, we need to redouble efforts to separate fact from fiction. We also need to seek out and understand communities whose worldview and ideological orientation are different from our own.
That means developing not only technologies but norms around factual information and media accuracy, replacing the elite gatekeeping that formerly served that function.
By destabilizing so many of the informal institutions that underpin our democracy, the internet made it possible for President Trump to sweep them away. In an online world, we’ll need new informal institutions that not only safeguard us from dishonesty and corruption, but enable a democracy that lives up America’s most ambitious ideals.