Over this past week, I had a few experiences in the course of several book events for The Case for Impeachment which both illustrate the importance of this constitutionally important method of checking the actions of dangerous or criminal presidents, and the difficulty of doing so.
On Friday, I debated my Counterpunch editor, Jeff St. Clair, in a forum that was part of the International Socialist Organization conference at Columbia University in New York. Jeff crushed my argument in favor of impeachment at that forum with a brilliant monologue of one-liners that made John Stewart’s "Daily Show" seem like a Dick Cavett re-run. Declaring that Bush had in five years managed to destroy the U.S. military, U.S. imperialist strategy, the U.S. economy, and any remaining credibility that the New York Times might have once had, he asked the assembled radicals in the audience to "just imagine what else he could accomplish in just two more years in office!"
Jeff, who said he had supported the impeachment of Bill Clinton (though for his war against the Iraqi people and other substantive reasons, not for adultery and lying about adultery), argued that impeachment was a bad idea because the Bush administration is doing such a good job of destroying the world’s leading imperialist power.
Against such an onslaught, particularly one presented with such biting humor, I was hard-put to make the impeachment case–particularly because the self-styled radicals in the audience were for the most part predisposed to dismiss electoral politics as futile or, even worse, as a diversion designed to trick and placate the masses.
A part of me has to agree with Jeff’s basic analysis, but then, I think it is also true that off-hand dismissal of electoral politics by the hard left also represents a kind of diversion and a convenient cop-out. After all, the left, for all its rejection of electoral politics, has accomplished essentially nothing when it comes to halting U.S. militarism and imperialism, or challenging the rapacious behavior of the domestic corporations that increasingly dictate U.S. domestic and foreign policy. It’s easy to claim elections are a joke, and easy to organize marches down Broadway or demonstrations in D.C.’s Lafayette Square, but none of these actions have altered U.S. policy one bit.
It’s also easy to dismiss the US Constitution as the literary product of landed gentry and nascent capitalists, but the reality is that that remarkable if flawed document has been the basis for laws barring race and sex discrimination, protecting free speech and assembly, and outlawing child labor. It also provides the basis for challenging a president bent on becoming a dictator.
But for the Constitution to work, it has to have the active and aggressive support of the people–its protections, as historian Howard Zinn has ably pointed out, are routinely violated in the absence of mass protest–and dissing the document is no way to build that kind of support.
I would argue that those on the left who reject electoral politics in this era are making a possibly fatal error. Jeff’s mocking account of Bush presidency’s incompetence was truly inspired, but I see this administration in a much more dangerous light than he does–or at least than he did in that debate. My experience living in the military-fascist Chinese state during the early 1990s, and my experience living in West Germany in the mid-`60s when memories of the rise of the Nazis were still fresh, convince me that the past five years in the U.S. have represented a concerted march towards fascist dictatorship–a march that calls for a broad, multi-fronted resistance, both electoral and extra-parliamentary.
Democrats in Congress–particularly the leadership of the Democratic Party which has been so complicit in many of the policies like the Iraq War, the Patriot Act, and apparently even the NSA spying that are paving the way to a one-party state–are a weak straw on which to hang hopes for that resistance. That said, the Democratic Party does provide a vehicle for millions of people who value freedom and democracy but who aren’t ready to fight back by taking to the streets or storming the citadels of power as my colleague Jeff proposes. For a variety of reasons, the US is not France, the Philippines or the Ukraine.
It is a historic mistake, I believe, for the left to walk away from that electoral process and from those millions of potential opponents of authoritarian rule.
I believe that a campaign for impeachment, which according to some polls a majority of Americans and nearly all Democrats support, is a way of both educating the public about the Republican-led, corporate-backed drive towards dictatorship and neo-fascist control and of consolidating and rallying progressive forces within the Democratic Party. The latter effort is crucial if the death grip of the Democratic Leadership Council of conservative Democrats is to be pried loss from the control levers of the party.
Saturday found me, together with my co-author Barbara Olshansky, at a church on the New Haven green, talking about impeachment to an audience organized by Squeaky Wheel Productions, a group that produces the syndicated radio program "Between the Lines."
This audience was composed almost totally of people who are committed to Democratic politics. The wild applause that ensued on several occasions when I endorsed their efforts to back insurgent Ned Lamont in his effort to deny the Democratic Party nomination in Connecticut to incumbent Senator Joe Lieberman made that clear. Lamont, by some accounts, now has the backing of as many as 40 percent of the state’s Democrats, to the point that Lieberman has already said he would run as an Independent if he should lose the primary this August. That said, it would be an astonishing victory for the left if the pro-war, pro-Patriot Act Lieberman were defeated by the voters of his own party–and such an event would send shivers down the cartilaginous spines of every pro-war, pro-Patriot Act Democratic member of Congress.
Of the two groups, I have to say I have much more respect for the efforts of the activists at the Squeaky Wheel gathering than those at the ISO. It’s not that the ISO activists are not committed and hard working. Many of them are certainly investing much more of their lives into their political struggle than those in that church in New Haven. But I’m convinced that for all that, the Democratic Party activists have a much better chance of halting the country’s slide into fascism than do the ISO radicals. There is certainly an important role to be played by those who organize in the street (a role that could become even more important if electoral efforts fail), but at this point, with no viable Third Party, and no significant opposition in Congress to the Bush power grab, those who mock electoral resistance should reconsider their stance. A third event showed me why the Right has been able to make the inroads it has since 9-11. I was signing books at a Barnes&Noble store in Willow Grove, a suburb north of Philadelphia, when an older man stormed up and, shaking his finger at me, yelled, "What about Iran! Do you want to just let them build a nuclear bomb and then blow it up here?" As heads turned all over the store, I told him that his argument was preposterous–that for Iran, or North Korea for that matter, to launch an atomic bomb at the U.S. would be to commit national suicide. Any country that did such a thing would be obliterated by a U.S. response, and countries don’t commit suicide
"What about the attack on the World Trade Center?" he countered angrily. "They committed suicide!"
"But those people, were not a country," I replied. "They were individuals acting on behalf of a little organization, not a country. And the organization was not committing suicide, either–just those men in the planes."
"That’s your problem," he shouted in triumph before storming out of the store. "You’re too rational!"
Like Jeff St. Clair, he had me there.
DAVE LINDORFF is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. His new book of CounterPunch columns titled "This Can’t be Happening!" is published by Common Courage Press. Lindorff’s new book, "The Case for Impeachment",
co-authored by Barbara Olshansky, is due out May 1.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org