Fragile Mores

mores/ˈmɔːreɪz,ˈmɔːriːz /noun plural noun: mores

  1. the essential or characteristic customs and conventions of a society or community.

I’ve been thinking about the state of our republic over the past couple weeks – both due to current events and because I’ve recently finished reading Ratf**ked [1] and Dark Money [2].

Former President Obama described America as “no fragile thing” in his farewell address. America may not be fragile, but I think the particular variant of democracy we’ve grown over the past few hundred years is. I believe our democracy is a fragile thing. And I would argue that our elected leaders over the past few decades – at multiple levels – have failed to recognize that fragility.

Or maybe they recognize it and they just don’t care.

Western democracies have inoculated themselves against overt tyranny and anarchy for the past few hundred years using different vaccines in different places. In America the serum has been a tincture of forward thinking by the framers, no small amount of luck, and perhaps most importantly a willingness on all sides to play by the rules.

Not just a willingness to play by the written rules – as embodied in the Constitution, by federal and state laws, and our body of jurisprudence – but by a set of unspoken and sometimes more restrictive set of mores [3].

The written rules, for example, dictate that various branches of our government will submit to oversight from the others. It’s only the mores that enjoin any of those branches from disparaging or undermining the legitimacy of the other branches.

The written rules dictate that a president “shall, at stated Times, receive for his Services, a Compensation, which shall neither be encreased (sic) nor diminished during the Period for which he shall have been elected, and he shall not receive within that Period any other Emolument from the United States, or any of them.”

The mores dictate that the president will remove the specter of conflict of interest by placing his (or, with any luck, eventually her) assets in a blind trust, and by not using their bully pulpit to king-make in a purportedly free market.

In recent years [4] this willingness to be bound by tradition has fallen away, and our political discourse – and the country – have suffered for it. At this point the two sides don’t just disagree on policy – a form of disagreement I think makes the county better through constructive argument in the long run – but have effectively lost the common ground from which to hold a civil and constructive conversation.

Both sides seem to be playing a game of total war – encouraged by our winner take all system – with no obvious concern for long term stability or viability. No self-awareness that when tides turn – and in the long run they always do – whatever precedent one side sets the other side may choose to adopt.

More than just being depressing, I think it’s inherently short-sited and dangerous. There’s a treacherously short path between insulting entire ethnic classes of people and deciding they aren’t even people.

Just the briefest of moments between depriving a group of their constitutional protections and transforming our government into some new thing.

A short, slippery slope from disparaging judges to ignoring the rule of law…

And right now the ground feels awfully glassy under my feet.