Why the Left Needs To Stop Worrying and Learn To Love Impeachment

The fight for democracy can’t be left to the centrists.

Max B. Sawicky October 3, 2019

An attendee holds a piñata of Donald Trump as John Dean, former White House counsel under Richard Nixon, takes the stage during a town hall on impeachment October 1 in Union City, Calif. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

If you’re try­ing to build a mass polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion while ignor­ing the polit­i­cal issue every­body in the coun­try is talk­ing about, you’re doing it wrong.

Democracy is not merely an identifier or assertion of bona fides for socialists. It is an operational requirement, both to attain power and to employ it.

Why in the world not impeach Don­ald Trump? You’re a social­ist and you don’t want to see him impeached? Real­ly? Back in April — admit­ted­ly, before the lat­est Biden-Ukraine rev­e­la­tions — my friend Bhaskar Sunkara, edi­tor of the social­ist mag­a­zine Jacobin, made the case against impeach­ment. He acknowl­edged that Trump is rep­re­hen­si­ble in the extreme, yet dis­missed impeach­ment as squan­der­ing a his­toric open­ing to advo­cate for social reforms in exchange for some polit­i­cal theater.”

I dis­agree. This career draft dodger, tax evad­er, adul­ter­er, debt-default­er, chis­el­er, four-flush­er and all-around gonif —Don­ald Trump, our fuck­ing pres­i­dent — is the poster boy for every­thing we despise. And the entire Repub­li­can Par­ty has stood foursquare behind him from the beginning.

Impeach­ment for­mal­izes and empha­sizes that the cur­rent admin­is­tra­tion and all its works — its leg­is­la­tion, its dereg­u­la­tion, its judi­cial appoint­ments — are fun­da­men­tal­ly ille­git­i­mate. Impeach­ment does not only chal­lenge cur­rent author­i­ty; it chal­lenges its genesis.

A dis­tinc­tion between the cur­rent pri­or­i­ties of the Left — Medicare For All, the Green New Deal, etc. — and impeach­ment is illog­i­cal. For the fore­see­able future, if not indef­i­nite­ly, demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ists will have to work with­in the frame­work of the U.S. state. For this to be fea­si­ble, the State’s demo­c­ra­t­ic process­es need to be pre­served, if not strength­ened. We need to attack the legit­i­ma­cy of the admin­is­tra­tion in order to defend our increas­ing­ly embat­tled demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions. We need democ­ra­cy to pur­sue all our pri­or­i­ties in social reform.

Democ­ra­cy is not mere­ly an iden­ti­fi­er or asser­tion of bona fides for social­ists. It is an oper­a­tional require­ment, both to attain pow­er and to employ it. 

Impeach­ment is not a sub­sti­tute for a social jus­tice agen­da, or a pos­i­tive elec­toral out­come in 2020. It is a facil­i­ta­tor. Imme­di­ate­ly, it pre­oc­cu­pies the Trump admin­is­tra­tion and lim­its the dam­age it would do on oth­er fronts. It dra­ma­tizes a wealth of detail on the administration’s malfea­sance. It strength­ens the case for who­ev­er oppos­es Trump, against any Repub­li­cans who sup­port him, and against any Democ­rats who fail to pros­e­cute the case against him energetically.

There is a risk that the impeach­ment pro­ceed­ings will be nar­row and legal­is­tic, and even worse, that they will fea­ture neo­con­ser­v­a­tive attacks on Trump for fail­ing to sup­port Ukraine against Rus­sia. As with every oth­er issue, the debate with­in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic cau­cus in Con­gress on how to do impeach­ment will be ideological.

It is up to the Left to pro­mote a pro­gres­sive frame for impeach­ment. The chief prospec­tive vic­tim in the Ukraine affair was not Ukraine — it was our own democ­ra­cy. The degra­da­tion of our demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions, from vot­er sup­pres­sion to ger­ry­man­der­ing to the stonewalling of Mer­rick Gar­land, is the source of Repub­li­cans’ cur­rent polit­i­cal advan­tage and pre­vents urgent reforms sup­port­ed by strong majori­ties of the public.

A lead­ing objec­tion offered by Sunkara and oth­ers is that no one thinks that this can hap­pen giv­en the cur­rent com­po­si­tion of Con­gress.” Every­one is aware that there are not enough Repub­li­can votes in the Sen­ate to remove Trump from office. But the pol­i­tics of impeach­ment lie more in the process than in the con­clu­sion. And inci­den­tal­ly, if there is no chance of a Sen­ate vote to remove Trump, there is noth­ing to fear in a Pres­i­dent Pence. In any case, one use­ful way to broad­en the impeach­ment inquiry is to rope Pence into it, not to men­tion the Sec­re­tary of State and the Attor­ney Gen­er­al. Trump has been help­ful in this regard, in effect threat­en­ing to take his cronies down with him. This is a good thing!

In April, Sunkara dis­missed the prospect of impeach­ment hear­ings as the­ater,” but pol­i­tics sub­stan­tial­ly is the­ater. Pick­et lines and march­es are the­ater. There is bad the­ater, and there is con­struc­tive the­ater. Impeach­ment can be con­struc­tive. Sunkara imag­ined the hear­ings will be bor­ing. Tastes may dif­fer on this, but watch­ing guilty mis­cre­ants — and rest assured, they are all guilty — be abused by Mem­bers of Con­gress could prove to be very enter­tain­ing. For Mem­bers with a killer instinct, impeach­ment can be blood sport. Must-see TV.

Impeach­ment is a polit­i­cal weapon. The metic­u­lous elab­o­ra­tion of charges and evi­dence in a due-process set­ting is the edu­ca­tion that the coun­try needs. Know­ing some­thing in gen­er­al is nev­er as com­pelling as learn­ing all the gory details. If you think such a process would fall on deaf ears, you have to think there is no good case to make against Trump — a strange con­clu­sion for any read­er of In These Times.

Anoth­er reser­va­tion on the Left is that impeach­ment lets Democ­rats off the hook for their numer­ous defi­cien­cies. Pro­fes­sor Samuel Moyn would like the Left to use impeach­ment to indict both par­ties, as well as their roles in the growth of the impe­r­i­al pres­i­den­cy,” a growth which cer­tain­ly rais­es the like­li­hood of mis­be­got­ten mil­i­tary adven­tur­ism. But such a pos­ture would sure­ly ren­der the Left irrel­e­vant to this debate, which is ground­ed in par­ti­san par­ty conflict.

As not­ed at the out­set, when the nation’s atten­tion is focused on a thing, it does lit­tle good to say you real­ly should be lis­ten­ing to me talk about some­thing entire­ly dif­fer­ent. A fail­ure of the Left to take up impeach­ment leaves the field to low­est-com­mon-denom­i­na­tor neocon/​neoliberal pol­i­tics, with which after all we are com­pet­ing. Every pres­i­den­tial can­di­date with a lick of sense under­stands they can’t let the likes of Joe Biden monop­o­lize the anti-Trump franchise.

The root of the case against Trump is the strug­gle for democ­ra­cy. As Leigh Phillips and Michal Roz­wors­ki say in The People’s Repub­lic of Wal­mart, Democ­ra­cy is the beat­ing heart of social­ism.” Demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ists must become seri­ous about democ­ra­cy: It should be more than mere­ly a means of dis­tin­guish­ing our­selves from some oth­er dudes.

In polit­i­cal com­pe­ti­tion with craven Repub­li­cans and assort­ed weak-kneed Democ­rats, democ­ra­cy is our super-power.

Max B. Saw­icky is an econ­o­mist and writer based in Vir­ginia. He pre­vi­ous­ly worked for 18 years at the Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Insti­tute in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.
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