When these sorts of things happen in Minneapolis the city generally declares a "Snow Emergency". Snow Emergencies are a big deal in The City Of Lakes and differ a bit from what you might be familiar with, like in Boston, where they just plow the middle of the streets, or Washington DC where basically everyone panics, abandons their cars in the middle of the street, and run home to hide for three weeks or so. In Minneapolis Snow Emergencies are a highly complicated affair. (Please note suburban cities in the Twin Cities have their own rules, some simply ban on street parking after large snowfalls until every thing is plowed or even parking in general in the winter, but for this blog post I am talking about the City of Minneapolis.)
So how do Snow Emergencies in Minneapolis work? Well feel free to check out the official rules, but gist of it is this:
- The city can declare a Snow Emergency any day before 6:00 pm. Once declared it's illegal to park on "snow emergency routes" (main thoroughfares) in the city from 8:00 pm to the following 8:00 am.
- Starting the following 8:00 am it is illegal to park on the even side of the street until 8:00 pm or until the street is "fully plowed".
- Starting the next 8:00 am its illegal to park on the odd side of the street until 8:00 pm or until the street is fully plowed.
- Cars that aren't moved are subjected to getting a ticket and possibly towed.
But here's the thing to remember, this system, while backed up by the power of the city in a very real legal way (you can get a ticket, someone can come and tow your car to the impound lot, if you try to stop them by force you'll get arrested and be prosecuted), but at the same time it is dependent on people complying both due to incentives, and also out of learned habits as well. In fact, getting your car towed during one is a right of passage for many people from Greater Minnesota or the suburbs who "move to the big city" which is part of how the norm gets established for new comers. Moreover these norms aren't all just about avoiding punishment. Moving your car in compliance with the rules can be seen as a good thing, as in "If we do this then the street can be plowed and better for everyone! You idiots who didn't follow the rules are making it worse for the rest of us!"
In other words, it's a system that is dependent on social norms as much as big trucks or logistical experts in Public Works planning on how to deploy said trucks over three days.
So what does this have to do with Trump and democracy? Well here's what happened to me during the snowy weekend. A Snow Emergency was declared on Friday meaning that plowing of the street where I park my car would start on the even side at 8:00 am Saturday. Easy enough for me, I parked on the odd side Friday night and was fine. Then on Saturday night around 5:00 pm I went to move my car to the even side of the street (as they would be plowing the odd side starting on Sunday 8 am) and to my horror (well okay annoyance) I discovered lots of people hadn't moved their cars, there was no ticketing or towing, and the city hadn't even plowed the even side of many streets.
In other words, the norms of the system had broken down and thus the institutional aspect of it had as well, and vice versa. After all ticketing and towing cars works as an incentive if only a few people break the rule, if lots of people don't do it there's just no way to possibly to punish everyone. Likewise if everyone starts ignoring the rule, you can't plow close to the curb as there are cars in the way, and so what once was a solvable problem becomes giant unmovable ice mounds that cause people to park closer together and close off the street.
What struck me that night as I pondered whether to move my car to the semi-plowed even street and risk a ticket, wait until 8 pm to do it and be sure it would be okay, or just wake up early and on Monday was that this was a good metaphor for an underappreciated problem with politics in The Trump Era.
Any political scientist could tell you that democracies are not just based on written rules and systems but also upon informal agreed upon norms that are there to make sure the system works. In other words the city can't force everyone to comply with snow emergency rules, people have to agree to follow them to some degree. Moreover once those norms breakdown, ie people start not caring about Snow Emergency announcements because it's not clear anyone else does, it's really hard to get them back.
And that's a big part of what the problem Trump poses to our democracy as he's breaking down democratic norms every chance he gets. To cite a few examples:
- He refuses to do the "Head of State" part of the job.
- He lies a lot (all presidents "spin", but Trump's lies are normatively different).
- He threatens to jail his political opponents.
- He says all sorts of crazy shit on Twitter.
- He engages in flagrant nepotism, self-dealing, and tolerates flagrant self-dealing from people he's put in positions of power in a nepotist manner.
I think the poses a huge problem for liberals who are starting to think about what a post-Trump political era might look like. Liberals generally like "good government" reforms and so there's a lot talk about that, see Michelle Goldberg for a typical reformist agenda in a recent column that calls for things like tougher ethics rules. But at the end of her column she quotes political scientist Steven Levitsky who points out that simply changing the rules, without norms to back them up, is ultimately unlikely to work (he's written a book about this whole point).
You can see this in my Snow Emergency anecdote. What sort of "reform" would fix this this problem? Higher fines might discourage some, but then again if there's no way to fine everyone and so lots of people will still ignore it, and it's hardly fair or an effective deterrent if infrequently applied (see this classic example here). More and better equipment could plows the streets quicker, except if people don't move their cars in which case it becomes basically impossible. Better outreach might get the word out more broadly (there is already an app, a Twitter account, a email and text alert service, however) but if people just ignore it that won't work.
In other words, the norms are an important part of Snow Emergencies (and democracy) that more rules and technocratic reforms can't really make up for.
The good news is the City just declared another Snow Emergency on Sunday and people seemed to take it more seriously so the streets are much better. Plus its warming up so maybe climate change will save us all. But it's also quite possible the first botched one will cause real damage in the future, much like even a single failed Trump term could cause real lasting damage to the social norms of our collective City On A Hill for a long time.