Politics, Norms and the Importance of Consequences


January 24, 2021 by Jean

President Trump addressing protestors at White House on Jan 6 2021 (photo credit: Reuters)I have struggled to post on this blog in recent months. I have begun a number of posts, but they were overtaken by events before I could get my thoughts marshalled and published online. I am coming back to one of those unfinished posts because I think my expertise as a sociologist can offer a useful perspective. That is  the topic of politics and norms and how we should respond to Donald Trump’s attempts to obstruct the transfer of power after the Presidential Election.

Trump has often been described as a “norm-busting” President. An understanding of what social norms are and how they work can provide some insight into whether Trump’s “norm-busting” will be a short-lived aberration or a more permanent change in American politics.

Let’s start with what norms are. We can define them as  “shared expectations about how people should and should not behave.”

  • Norms are not universal; they are socially defined, differing from place to place and especially from culture to culture.
  • Norms are not hard and fast rules for behavior; rather, they delineate a range of acceptable behavior. When we talk about someone “pushing the envelope,” we mean that they are trying to expand the range of behavior that will be deemed acceptable by others. When we say that a behavior has “crossed a line,” we mean that it is definitely unacceptable.
  • Norms delineate both a general range of acceptable behavior for interactions in everyday life and acceptable behaviors for specific situations (e.g., participating in an election) and specific roles (e.g., President of the United States).
  • Some norms are much more important than others. We may find the failure to follow some norms annoying, but we will find the failure to follow others immoral.
  • Norms are not the same thing as laws. Our most important social norms are often encoded in law. In some cases, though, the formal laws are in tension with the informal norms; and in those situations, the social norms are a more powerful influence on behavior. (If you doubt this, consider what happens if you drive just at or a little below the legal speed limit on most roads in the United States.)

If norms are not the same thing as laws, where do norms come from and how are they maintained? Norms emerge from our interactions with one another. Each time we interact with another human being, we get some response from the other person that provides a clue about whether they approved or disapproved of our behavior. When our behaviors are outside the range of what’s acceptable, we get negative feedback that makes us uncomfortable. (I once spent two days in Amsterdam, where every restaurant meal I had was a very uncomfortable experience. I know from others’ responses to me that I was doing something that was outside the range of acceptable behaviors, but I wasn’t there long enough to figure out what it was.)

Because norms are created and maintained through others’ responses to our behavior, the consequences of violating norms are important. If I “push the envelope” by doing something outside the range of acceptable behavior (e.g., running a red light) and no one seems to mind, I am much more likely to do it again. If I get mildly negative responses from others (e.g., some dirty looks), I may do it again, but it probably won’t become my regular response to a red light. If I get strong negative responses (lots of horn blowing and obscene gestures, being pulled over and ticketed), I am much less likely to repeat the behavior. If there is no negative feedback for pushing against the boundaries of acceptable behavior, those boundaries expand to include behavior that was previously considered unacceptable. At first, such a behavior may be on the fringes of what is considered acceptable, but if it is repeated more and more often by more and more people, it will move into the mainstream of acceptable behavior. This is how norms change.

We now return to the recent Presidential election. What happens after an election is governed by a combination of laws and informal norms. These include the following sequence of events beginning on election day:

  • As vote counts are completed at the precinct level, they are reported to the media as well as to the state.
  • The media use statistical analyses to project winners based on reported vote counts.
  • When one Presidential candidate is projected to have more than 270 electoral votes based on the state-by-state results, the media (using a previously agreed on arrangement) project that candidate as the winner.
  • Sometime after this projection, the losing candidate calls the winning candidate with congratulations and then appears and makes a concession speech.
  • In the days after the election results are announced, states may have automatic recounts if the winning margin is very close. Losing candidates may also request recounts under some circumstances.
  • At this point, a formal transition process from the old administration to the new usually begins.
  • Simultaneously with the transition process, each state officially certifies its election results and the winning slate of electors in each state meets to ceremoniously cast their ballots.
  • As part of the transition process, the outgoing First Family invites the incoming First Family to the White House for a tour and conversation.
  • On Jan. 6, the Congress meets in a joint session to ceremonially count the electoral votes.
  • The newly elected President assumes office at an Inauguration ceremony on Jan. 20. The outgoing President participates in this ceremony, and the newly inaugurated President participates in a ceremonial farewell to the outgoing President afterward.

This year, the outgoing President violated almost all of these norms, acting outside the range of acceptable behaviors. These non-normative behaviors went beyond pushing the edges of the envelope; together, they amounted to an attempt to obstruct the transfer of power to a new President. The climax of these efforts came on Jan. 6, when the President urged his supporters to go to the Capitol and disrupt the electoral vote counting. In this, he was aided by changing norms for this ceremonial count. In 2001, 2005, and 2017, Democratic members of the House of Representatives filed objections to the electoral vote counts for some states. As these challenges were repeatedly mounted, such objections seem to have become part of the range of acceptable behavior (albeit on the fringe of acceptable) in the House of Representatives; the 100+ Republican members of the House who objected this year were building on this normalization of objections by Democrats. Where the Republicans pushed the envelope this year was in the Senate. For the most part, objections to the counting of electoral votes in the House of Representatives have not been joined by any Senators and have therefore been set aside by the Vice-President, who presides over the ceremonial vote. (The exception was in 2005, when one Senator joined a challenge to the electoral vote count from Ohio. That objection was rejected by the other 99 Senators, providing a message of disapproval to the Senator who objected.) An organized effort in the Senate this year to object to electoral vote counts from several states was new and outside the previous range of acceptable behavior.

It remains to be seen whether the behavior of objecting to electoral college vote counts will become normalized in the Senate as it has in the House. If so, it will change what has been a ceremonial ratification of the peaceful transfer of power into the opposite, a contentious display of partisanship. A number of actors, alarmed at the prospect of this change in norms, have expressed disapproval of the Senate objections. These include the Republican Senators who linked the assault on the Capitol by rioters to these objections and repudiated the behavior on the evening of Jan. 6. In the days since, we have seen negative consequences for the leaders of the Senate objection campaign, Senators Cruz and Hawley, from prominent campaign donors and in the form of a Senate ethics complaint.

But what about former President Trump? Many Republicans have been arguing against any formal consequences for his behavior on the grounds that such consequences will further divide the country and delay the process of healing. I worry, however, that the absence of any negative consequences for his norm-busting behavior will undermine those norms and make the peaceful transfer of power more difficult in the future. My first choice for consequences would have been bipartisan motions for Censure passed by large margins in both houses of Congress. That is the course of action I urged on Maine’s Congressional delegation, and I went so far as to ask Senator Susan Collins to sponsor such a motion. While I think a more partisan impeachment process is likely to be less effective, I consider it better than no action at all. The latter will not bring harmony; it is more likely to make the transfer of power increasingly contentious in elections to come.

8 thoughts on “Politics, Norms and the Importance of Consequences

  1. Great, in-depth explanation of norms. I really hope the Trump Administration turns out to be an aberration of the norms but the way some Republicans are acting I’m not sure that will be the case. Especially if he’d not held accountable for what he did to on January 6th and days before it.

    • Jean says:

      Jean, I too worry about the Republicans who seem to be providing positive reinforcement for Trump’s behavior. I was pleased to see today that, with conviction in the Senate seeming very unlikely, Senators Collins (R-Maine) and Kaine (D-Virginia) are exploring the possibilities of a bipartisan censure motion.

  2. Charles Emmons says:

    This is a very good and interesting explanation (according to me, another sociologist). I can see an expansion of this piece into a book about politics since 2016, including not just Trump but the social movements (Black Lives Matter etc.), with a chapter on COVID norms too. As long as you write it. I’m retired.

    • Jean says:

      LOL, Charlie, at the rate it took me to write this blog post, even a short book would be a long time in coming! Do you think this counts as sociological show and tell?

  3. Brenda says:

    What a thoughtful and clear summary. “Well, there goes another norm out the window,” became almost a joke phrase for me and my husband these last 4 years. If nothing else, I hope we have learned that some of the norms we have taken for granted are of such importance that they must be formalized into laws, with binding legal consequences.

    I’m also wildly curious to know what you did to cause consternation among the Amsterdam diners! I remember in Sweden when we entered a bank with sunglasses on, the place about erupted. Apparently, only bank robbers wear them INTO the bank.

    • Jean says:

      Brenda, Since my awkward encounters in Amsterdam were mostly with waitstaff, I wondered if the explanation was something as simple as maybe it’s very weird behavior there to eat out alone in a restaurant. I may have also been missing some cultural norm like how you are supposed to signal the staff that you are ready to order.

  4. Diana Studer says:

    I also wonder how or what you did in Amsterdam.

    Way back when I was new to Switzerland, my sister came to visit. I remember one restaurant meal when my husband was mortified by these 2 foreign women. We had bread served with our lunch. And we asked for butter (no, only for breakfast, but, since you insist!) And then side plates, please (they simply used the freshly laid for us tablecloth) !!

    How could we know – that – butter – and side plates – were unforgivable.
    But times change, today the butter is probably normal, but, probably not the side plates.
    That is, once restaurants open again. Remember when THAT was normal?

    • Jean says:

      Diana, I remember having dinner in Whitehorse, in the Canadian Yukon territory with some fellow travelers who were Australians. They wanted to eat their salad at the end of their dinner rather than before the entree, but the waitress was well trained not to serve the main course until we were all done with our salads.
      I’m wondering if I will remember any of the norms for eating out (or even for sharing a meal with another human being!) by the time we are able to do it again.

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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