Nancy Pelosi’s False Dichotomies

Photograph Source: US Department of Labor – Public Domain

The corporate Democrats can see through false dichotomies when it suits them to do so. When National Rifle Association Republicans ritually assert (after big mass shootings, like the recent one in Virginia Beach) that “people kill people, guns don’t kill people,” smart corporate Democrats point out that the extreme number of people killed by other people wielding guns in the United States cannot be understood without factoring in the weakness of gun laws and the remarkable availability of lethal weaponry in the nation. Most corporate Democrats rightly call out “the people kill people” vs. “guns kill people” dichotomy as dangerously false.

When the Republicans identify themselves as the party of capitalism and the Democrats as the party of socialism, corporate Democrats reject the false dichotomy and claim correctly (if sadly) to be a party of capitalism. (Never mind that capitalism is systemically hard-wired: to devalue and exploit labor power; to concentrate wealth and power in ever fewer hands; to disable and pervert democracy; to purchase the misplaced allegiance of educators, intellectuals, and politicians; to capture government; to pollute and poison culture in service to endless commodification; to push livable ecology past disastrous tipping points of no return.)

But corporate Democrats purvey richly false dichotomies of their own. For one recent example, take their notion that that the Democratic Party must choose between either (a) running the “socialist” presidential candidate Bernie Sanders or (b) electoral viability against Donald Trump in 2020. The argument recurs again and again among corporate Democrat hosts and panelists on CNN and MSDNC and among corporate Democrat reporters and pundits at the New York Times, the Washington Post, Politico, and elsewhere.

It’s nonsense. None of the various corporate Democratic candidates (including the hopelessly right-wing and inane gaffe-machine Joe Biden) is more likely to prevail over Trump than Sanders. Not that the present writer is a big Bernie fan, but the “independent” progressive Democrat Senator (not actually a socialist) from Vermont is the most viable general election contender in the Democratic field for two related reasons: he runs in consistent accord with majority-progressive social-democratic public opinion on key domestic policy issues; he is the only candidate in the field who can mobilize the poor and working class sectors of the electorate that have dropped out of the electoral process thanks to the Democratic Party’s long neoliberal-era capture by Wall Street and corporate America.

Another false dichotomy common among establishment Democrats these days says that their party must choose between (a) impeaching the eminently impeachment-worthy Donald Trump or (b) successfully voting Trump out of office in 2020. This, too, is an incorrect framing of dualistic choice. This, too, is nonsense.

We all know, or should know, the argument behind the reluctance of top corporate Democrat and House Speaker Nancy “We’re Capitalist and That’s Just the Way it Is” Pelosi (net worth: $74 million) to move with all deliberate speed towards the long overdue impeachment of the aspiring fascist leader in the White House. The argument has two key components. The first part holds that impeachment will only enhance Trump’s support and chances for reelection because it will set him up for exoneration (and non-removal) in the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate while agitating his right-wing base into high turnout in 2020.

The second part says that impeachment would distract Congressional Democrats and presidential candidates from their proper focus on fighting for working Americans on their core “pocketbook” and “kitchen table” issues: wages, health care/insurance, taxes, climate decency, student and credit card debt, and the like.

The first part is false. Take it from American political historian and American University professor Allan Lichtman, who has correctly predicted the last nine presidential elections. By Lichtman’s carefully studied analysis, Trump will be re-elected in 2020 unless Democrats “grow a spine” and begin impeachment proceedings. Impeachment, Lichtman says, is both “constitutionally” and “politically” smart.

“It’s a false dichotomy,” Lichtman recently told CNN, “to say Democrats have a choice between doing what is right and what is constitutional and what is politically right. Impeachment is also politically right…Democrats are fundamentally wrong about the politics of impeachment and their prospects for victory in 2020.”

Lichtman has a system that interweaves thirteen critical factors to determine presidential election outcomes. If a party falls short on six or more of these factors (including underlying economic conditions, whether the party has an incumbent president running, how the party did in previous mid-term elections, whether the party is plagued by scandal, the degree of intra party primary contestation, and perceived foreign policy successes or failures for the party in power), they lose the presidency. The uncannily prophetic historian told The Hill that Trump’s chance for re-election come down to three key variables: Republican defeat in the midterm elections, an absence of foreign policy success, and Trump’s “limited appeal to voters.” Impeachment would spark a fourth key: public scandal.

“Let’s not forget,” Lichtman says, “impeachment is not just a vote in the House…It involves public hearings as part of the impeachment inquiry, and, what everyone forgets, a public trial in the Senate in which House prosecutors present evidence, present documents, make opening and closing statements.”

By Lichtman’s model, the impeachment of Bill Clinton cost Clinton’s Vice President Al Gore the 2000 presidential election.

What about the second part of the Pelosi argument against impeachment, the notion that it will shut the Democratic Party down on bread-and-butter issues? Here again we confront lame, false-dichotomous thinking. Nothing about impeachment would stop House representatives from also and at the same time fighting for a higher minimum wage, for universal health care, for reduced drug prices, for progressive taxes, for environmental protection, and more that matters to everyday Americans. Are we really expected to believe that House members and their staffs are unable to chew impeachment gum and walk progressive policy at the same time? Seriously?

And how do Pelosi and the rest of the establishment Democrats think they can fight credibly for “working Americans” when their party defies their own rank-and-file base’s super-majority call for them to act on their constitutional duty to properly discipline a president who clearly and explicitly thinks he stands above the law, like a king?

There’s another and disturbing matter to consider. Why should we believe that adding impeachment to their workload would be the reason for their failure to represent working people and the poor over and against the rich and the powerful when their party has been coldly abandoning the nation’s working and lower classes in pursuit of corporate and elite financial sector backing for close to half a century if not longer? In early 2008, the late left political scientist Sheldon Wolin all-too accurately the Democrats’ politics as “inauthentic opposition…Should Democrats somehow be elected,” Wolin predicted, they would do nothing “to alter significantly the direction of society” and to “substantially revers[e] the drift rightwards. … The timidity of a Democratic Party mesmerized by centrist precepts points,” Wolin wrote, “to the crucial fact that for the poor, minorities, the working class and anti-corporatists there is no opposition party working on their behalf.” The corporatist Democrats would work to “marginalize any possible threat to the corporate allies of the Republicans.”

Wolin called it. A nominal Democrat was elected president along with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress in 2008. What followed under Barack Obama (as under his Democratic presidential predecessors Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton) was the standard neoliberal manipulation of campaign populism and identity politics in service to the reigning big money bankrollers and their global empire. The Wall Street takeover of Washington and the related imperial agenda of the “Pentagon System” were advanced more effectively by the nation’s first Black president than they could have been by stiff and wealthy white-male Republicans like John McCain or Mitt Romney. The underlying “rightward drift” sharpened, fed by a widespread and easily Republican-exploited sense of popular abandonment and betrayal, as the Democrats depressed and demobilized their own purported popular base.

The Democrats – once accurately described by Richard Nixon’s onetime political strategist Kevin Phillips as “history’s second most enthusiastic capitalist party” – haven’t fought seriously for the “kitchen table” (or “lunch bucket” or “bread and butter” or “pocketbook”) interests of the American working class in more than half a century, if ever. And that’s no small part of why the horrific monster Donald Trump sits in the White House.

Saying that impeachment would stop the Democrats from fighting for working people and the poor is kind of like saying that Russia “undermined our great democracy” in 2016. There was no great U.S. democracy for Russia or any other outside power to collapse three years ago; there was a homegrown corporate oligarchy wherein majority public opinion was virtually powerless in relation to the nation’s reigning structures of concentrated wealth and power. In a similar and related vein, there is no progressive Democratic Party fighting for the non-affluent majority and the common good to be distracted and diverted by impeachment in 2019.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).