Impeachment and the Myth of “Polarization”

December 20,  2019

Everyone who comments on American politics finds occasion to examine a central, if poorly-explained and vaguely defined phenomenon: the alleged “polarization” of the country into two mutually hostile camps, each characterized by an intense degree of unreasoning “partisanship.” Politicians, pundits and journalists alike see symmetry between the Democratic and Republican camps (or “tribes”), as if they each contributed equally to this divisiveness and fed in equal degree off each other’s anger. (As examples, see recent articles by two of our nation’s most respected journalists, Peter Baker of The New York Times and Gerald Seib of The Wall Street Journal.) This two-sided image is errant nonsense, born of intellectual laziness, lack of historical perspective, journalists’ hope to appear “even-handed,” and the commonsensical assumption that there are two matching sides to every conflict. In fact, however, the crippling polarization of American politics has been a Republican project that lacks a real counterpart among Democratic politicians and voters, whose role in this tragedy has remained largely reactive. The G.O.P.’s radicalization and abandonment of democratic norms began as early as the late 1970s and has now, during the impeachment of Donald Trump, come to full and grotesque fruition.

In the recently concluded battle over Trump’s impeachment, we see the penultimate act in the Republican Party’s betrayal of democratic values. Belying “even-handed” journalistic images of two comparably partisan “alternative worlds,” in this battle there was no symmetry, indeed almost no resemblance, between the two political parties. Only the Republicans acted from partisan motives, clinging to power at any price. Their “arguments” were entirely without merit. They had no facts on their side. They defended the indefensible. They, and their allies in conservative media, were they only ones occupying an “alternative world.” The Democrats, in stark contrast, occupied the real world of facts, documented by media which still uphold standards of journalistic objectivity. Overwhelming evidence demonstrated that Trump had abused his power in Ukraine (Article I), while his guilt under Article II – obstruction of Congress – was a plain matter of the public record. House Democrats acted not for partisan gain, but rather at their own political risk, in a principled defense of our Constitution. For this they deserve our heartfelt thanks and praise.

What could possibly have moved House Republicans to lie so shamelessly to the American people, to scream so loudly in defense of a moral monster who has betrayed our democracy and our national security, and who would be a dictator in a heartbeat if he could get away with it? The conventional explanation is that these members of Congress fear their base, that they fear being “primaried.” Depending on the poll, 85-90% of Republican voters approve of President Trump’s performance in office. Republican politicians know that if they cross the president, they will likely face a primary challenge from someone who attacks them for disloyalty to Trump. And yes, this simple political calculus certainly helps explain their behavior. But not by a long shot can it serve as a complete answer to our question. Fear of being primaried can explain passivity, it can explain silence, and it can explain voting against the articles of impeachment. It cannot explain going out of one’s way to loudly defend Trump’s indefensible actions. It cannot explain such blatant lying to the voters, the insistent claims that up is down, black is white, and ignorance is strength. It cannot explain cheap publicity stunts, like invading and disrupting the secure hearing room (or “SCIF”) at the Capitol. It cannot explain the disgusting attempts to smear brave, patriotic public servants like Ambassador Marie Yovnovitch and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman. So what can explain such sickening behavior?

Long before Donald Trump appeared on the political scene, the Republican Party made a pact with the devil. They turned their backs on American democratic values in a quest for power at any price. Already with Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts for the wealthy, Republicans embraced policies which served a wealthy few, at the expense of the American people. More and more, with each increasingly expensive election campaign, they let radically conservative wealthy donors push them toward unpopular policies. The most radical of these donors have been the notorious Koch brothers and their secretive network of allies, and the worst of these policies has been the denial of climate change, a denial which most Americans do not share. Having embraced unpopular policies, Republican politicians needed to make the political system less democratic, to substitute rule by a Republican minority for rule by the majority of the voters. They do this by lying to the voters, e.g. about climate change. Especially after the 2010 census and electoral victories at the state level let them redraw electoral districts, they set out to take the vote away from Americans who might vote against them, through partisan gerrymandering and the rapidly proliferating tactics of voter suppression. Not content with rigging elections, they also try to make elections less relevant, to make the voters’ decision count for less. They do this by packing the courts with extreme conservative ideologues, unelected judges with life tenure who can interpret the laws as arbitrarily as they please, without ever having to face the voters. Throughout this entire antidemocratic Republican campaign, Democrats have done their best to stand up for democracy, to preserve voting rights, and to fight court packing. Never in our nation’s history, not even in the election of 1860, have the differences between the parties been clearer. The Democrats have become the champions of our democracy, while the Republicans have become its implacable enemies.

Only their antidemocratic pact with the devil can explain why Republicans have screamed so loudly in their defense of the indefensible. They desperately need to distract the voters from the ugliest of the many ugly realities of this farce: the GOP has behaved in a manner which is profoundly unpatriotic and un-American, because in the United States of America, the essence of patriotism is support for democracy. Democracy is the ideal which defines the nation, a nation which cannot be defined by anything else – not by a single race, nor a single ethnicity, nor a single religion, nor even by a single language. Democracy is the noble ideal for which many hundreds of thousands of Americans have given their lives, in wars fought for freedom ever since the Northern effort in our Civil War. America has been the world’s foremost champion of democracy, as well as the birthplace of democracy, and it is this glorious history, above all, which allows us to rightfully claim that we are the greatest country on earth. Not surprisingly, during the impeachment battle Republicans have tried to justify their disgusting actions as a defense of the democratic process, accusing Democrats of mounting a “coup,” of trying by underhanded means to overturn the results of the 2016 election. Contemplating this Orwellian use of language, one has to say the irony here is so thick you could cut it with a knife. After all, it was many of these same Republicans who tried to overturn the results of the 1996 election, not because of a threat to our national security, nor because of a clear assault on our constitutional separation of powers, but rather because of…a blowjob!

Only one more act remains to be played in the tragedy of American democracy, on or shortly after November 3 of the coming year. Either Donald Trump wins reelection – as in 2016 with help from Russia and perhaps this time from other foreign powers  – or he loses, and declares the result fraudulent, claiming that millions of undocumented migrants have voted illegally. He made the same absurd claim in 2016, when the only thing at stake was bragging rights about who won the popular vote. If he loses next November, when his seat in the White House and immunity from near-certain prosecution are at stake, does anyone doubt that he will claim fraud and refuse to surrender the presidency? Does anyone seriously believe that his Republican enablers, at this late date, will renounce their pact with the devil? Can we plausibly hope that Republicans will lock arms with the Democratic colleagues whom they have so thoroughly demonized, and make a last stand to save the democracy on which they so long ago turned their backs? I, for one, am not holding my breath.