Entitled to their own country


entitled-child2a“That’s just not done,” people used to say of behaviors that violated genteel rules of polite society. It is not an expression you hear much anymore. “Polite society” is now as quaint as the notion that the United States abides by the international rule barring torture. Like the rule against Ghostbusters getting involved with possessed people, it’s more of a guideline than a rule.

“It’s okay if you’re a Republican” (IOKIYAR) is musty Internet shorthand for how one major party believes rules and norms apply only to certain people and not others. We are beyond that now. Far beyond it. It is a wonder anyone still uses the expression from the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” Nobody believes it anymore, even at the highest levels.

Writing for Salon, Harvard professor Bruce Hay gives his understanding of how the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia approached science. As a former Scalia clerk, Hay speaks from experience:

Antonin Scalia generally detested science. It threatened everything he believed in. He refused to join a recent Supreme Court opinion about DNA testing because it presented the details of textbook molecular biology as fact. He could not join because he did not know such things to be true, he said. (On the other hand, he knew all about the eighteenth century. History books were trustworthy; science books were not.) Scientists should be listened to only if they supported conservative causes, for example dubious studies purporting to demonstrate that same-sex parenting is harmful to children. Scientists were also good if they helped create technologies he liked, such as oil drills and deadly weapons.

Rules and norms can be confining, but they can also be empowering the way science defines physical reality, and Internet protocols and international standards make communication possible and business transactions predictable. But in politics, where once there was truth, now there is truthiness. Where once there were facts, now there are “true facts.” People who decry government “entitlements” behave as though they are entitled to their own facts, to their own president, their own government, and their own country. All others are illegitimate.

Nancy LeTourneau writes at Political Animal that Senate Republicans’ efforts to stonewall President Obama nominating Scalia’s replacement are consistent with their broader effort to, in Josh Marshall’s words, “delegitimize, degrade and denigrate his presidency and the man himself.” LeTourneau provides a short list of examples and writes:

Our democracy is not based on all of us agreeing with each other. The founders gave us a process for voicing those disagreements and doing the hard work of taking care of the country’s business in the midst of them. These unprecedented actions by the Republicans to undermine and delegitimize one of the three branches of our government place their side of the argument above those processes and thereby pose a threat to its very survival.

At Ten Miles Square, Peter Shane addresses the breakdown in norms directly:

What is happening is a dispute over norms – some call them “conventions” – which are the unwritten, but mutually accepted ways of doing business that allow parties and institutions in conflict to work together in spite of conflict. Thirteen years ago, I wrote a law review article decrying what I saw then as a dangerous corrosion in those institutional norms that had enabled frequently divided government to nonetheless achieve great things in the United States between the end of World War II and the late 1970s. Matters since then have grown much worse.

A president with 11 months to go in his term could reasonably expect, based on well-established norms, that the act of nominating a Supreme Court Justice will be viewed as a routine and wholly appropriate fulfillment of his duties. A president could reasonably expect the nominee to receive a hearing. Senate opposition on grounds of judicial philosophy rather than credentials might well be predictable also, but the legitimacy of a nomination and the expectation of a full hearing would seem to be unquestionable. The assertion by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) within hours of Scalia’s death that “this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new President,” immediately threatens to explode these norms.

The funny thing about norms – especially someone else’s – is you rarely notice them until someone violates them. Like the rule that racial and ethnic minorities ought to know their place. Like the rule that only white men get to be president. Or the rule that Christians get to dominate religious minorities. Or that America was founded for white Europeans.

What is crazy about the current presidential campaign and its coverage in the news, is how pundits and pollsters keep treating it as though accepted norms still apply. As if the usual tools for making predictions still work. As if Congress is still run by rational actors. As if Trump voters will vote their rational best interests instead of just burning the place to the ground like Dresden rather than let THEM have it.

This is a very Vonnegut moment. America has come unstuck in time. At one moment, it is 2016. At another, Orwell’s 1984. The next, it is FDR’s 1934. Or 1862, before Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Everybody thinks they get to have America their way. And, by God, they feel entitled to it.

(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)


  1. K says:

    Indeed. Given that most Americans don’t understand anything written above a 3rd grade level and appear to care more about the Kardashians than their future I doubt we will ever get to the point where we realize that the only thing we are certain to be entitled to is the painful mess we are creating for ourselves.