Iran, Inequality, and the Battle of American Norms

The word “norm” seems to have crawled out of the swamps of sociologese, and into the public conversation, almost becoming the word of the week. Right now, it’s a way of saying that following (or fixing) a law isn’t enough: to do the right thing you have also to follow the unwritten rules, the accepted underlying practices, the norms, of societies and institutions. The Timess David Brooks, in praise of a new book by the Harvard professor Robert Putnam, wrote a column recently arguing that we can’t solve the problem of poverty with cash handouts and good government alone—the social norms of the poor have to change, or be changed, first. Those social norms, like the expectation that, having made a woman pregnant, a man should marry and support her, are, Brooks writes, more important than any other element in making poor people rich, or at least richer. (Jill Lepore, to be sure, writing for this magazine, drew different conclusionsfrom Putnam’s book.)

In an ironically parallel move, the same Republican moralists who condemn the poor, or their politicians, for not enforcing social norms were accused all week of betraying an essential constitutional norm themselves—in this case, that you don’t effectively tell the nation’s enemies to ignore its twice-elected leader. Their pay-no-attention-to-the-President letter to the Iranian government wasn’t illegal, much less “treasonous,” but it certainly and grossly violated an unwritten but widely understood norm of political behavior. It wasn’t that no one had ever done something like this before. It was that there had been an assumption that it wasn’t remotely doable. That’s what made it a norm. If Barry Goldwater had written a letter to Khrushchev at the height of the Cuban missile crisis insisting that anything J.F.K. promised to do to resolve it should be ignored, it wouldn’t have just seemed destructive. It would have been unimaginable.

That’s the difference. A law is something that exacts an announced cost for being broken. A norm is something that is so much a part of the social landscape that you wouldn’t think, really, that anyone could break it. Laws are plans, like the city grid, that must be followed; norms are landmarks, like the old Penn Station—you don’t think anyone could tear them down, and then someone does.

Political norms matter because any constitutional arrangement known to man can break down if it isn’t played by the laws as well as by the rules. “The Constitution is not a suicide pact,” a great Justice famously said, but in truth any constitution can become a suicide pact if people ignore what’s left unwritten in it. If people choose not to buy the basic premise, the joke won’t land. Any social arrangement can disintegrate as much from misuse as repeal. If, as has happened in many an empire, the army figures out that it can buy and sell the emperors, pretty soon you no longer have an empire, or at least no longer much of an emperor. One shockingly violated norm of American constitutional practice was the old one against impeachment on a party-line vote. It’s always been the case that a simple majority in the House can send an American President to a Senate trial, with all the costs that involves. It was just taken for granted that no one would try this without bipartisan support and the likelihood of a conviction. Back in 1998, the Republicans decided to do it anyway—Why the hell not, the country’s booming and can run itself—at a cost that is still not fully understood.

The social norms that Brooks writes about matter a lot. Putnam’s great accomplishment, in his earlier books about the social roots of democracy, including “Bowling Alone,” was to make the case that civil society did indeed precede democratic institutions. Learning to play nice with others before you ever saw a voting booth was the best guarantee that the voting booths would remain open. The number of glee clubs or volunteer firemen in a community was a better guide to how well they adapted to democracy than any other metric.

Putnam’s earlier work certainly presupposes a feedback between prosperity and sane social practices. Do societies get rich because they have good norms, or do sound norms spread when societies get rich? One needn’t be terminally wishy-washy to think that a virtuous circle sets in, in which more money makes for more social peace (and more stable families), even as social peace and stable families help people make more money. Certainly, no one doubts the vicious circle of poverty producing social despair, with social despair producing more poverty. Isolating norms away from the booms and busts that help make them happen is as odd as isolating spare change from the pockets in which it sits.

So norms like playing well together really do matter. But they are a lot more plastic and locally enforced, less organic and hallowed, than can sometimes seem plain. The sociologist Howie Becker spent a career documenting all the ways in which norms are not just malleable over time but a lot more fragmentary than the people with power choose to believe. There are norms alongside norms sitting by norms around the corner from other norms. Reefer smokers follow them as tightly as prohibitionists. Willie Nelson obeyed as many as Nancy Reagan; they were just harder to spot through the smoke. Some social norms that are taken to be obvious in certain times and circles (homosexuals should be prosecuted, blacks and whites shouldn’t marry) turn out to be intolerable, and others that look trivial (people should go bowling with each other) turn out to be indispensable. Which one is which often becomes apparent only after they’ve been altered.

One way to get poor people to act like rich people is to give them more money. Prosperous societies have fewer social problems than poor ones, and when poor societies become more prosperous they generally become more placid. What the right wing is really asking is how you get poor people to act like rich people without actually giving them more money. That is a harder question. But the idea that there’s a causal connection between things like sexual permissiveness and social harm is obviously fatuous. The most astonishing change in American life in recent times has been the unlooked-for disappearance of violent crime. Had that sudden drop not happened, would conservatives be talking all the time about the need for reintroducing social norms to make it happen? The best explanations for the decrease, though, are either micro explanations of how behavior changes from experience—criminals learning that crime is a very bad business to be in—or else macro explanations about, say, lead poisoning, which are speculative but certainly have nothing at all to do with how many teens have sex with other teens.

Nor are norms enforced, as swoony traditionalists like to pretend, by collective wisdom passed on lovingly from generation to generation. They really tend to be enforced by bribes and threats and clear punishments for their violation. Usually, when you go to search for the reason that a social or constitutional norm got discarded, it was not because people forgot its value; it was because it once obviously paid to obey it and now no longer does, or because those whom it harmed fought against it. Even if norms can be seen as laws in Lululemon leggings, they still cover the same areas. The old constitutional norm about senators not negotiating freelance with foreign countries was enforceable in circumstances where the Senate elders controlled the Senate newbies. In an era of minimal legislative discipline and maximal search for public exposure, being loud, young, obnoxious, and in the Senate is cost-free. Or at least it is when your base wants you to be loud and obnoxious and disrespectful. One of the most interesting phenomena in modern American politics is the silence of Al Franken, who is apparently respecting the Minnesota norm that you ought to be a Norm, a regular guy who doesn’t get too loud too soon, even in his second Senate term.

The play between norms and laws is one of the great subjects of literature. Should Achilles give back Hector’s body to the Trojans? It’s only a battlefield norm, but the Iliad turns on it. The great novels of norms—American norms, at least—are the four books in John Updike’s Rabbit series, which are, exactly, all about the price of accepting the norms that a middle-class society imposes on the average sensual male (or female) citizen. Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom marries his pregnant girlfriend, stays with her dutifully after various failed attempts at escape to a life of more immediate gratifications, and then has the ironic sense, as the books go on, that he is the only one in America still sticking to the old self-imprisoning norms. Group sex comes in the door, and the inhibitions go right out the window. Is it an entrapping net or a reassuring pattern of premade choices? It depends on which side of the norm you’re sitting.

Norms are choices that somebody else has made for you. Having to make them yourself can be disconcerting. What this shows us, class, is that to be modern is to be simultaneously aware of the value of norms to our sense of who we are, and of the cost of enforcing them to our sense of who we might become. At any moment, we may be more or less aware of the oppressive weight of social and constitutional norms, or of the lightness of head we feel, and the sense of justice gained, once they’re gone. That’s normal.