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Some Midday Thoughts About Sondland Testimony and Impeachment

Only politics can save us!

US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland testifies during the House Intelligence Committee hearing as part of the impeachment inquiry into US President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on November 20, 2019. - The US ambassador to the European Union told an impeachment hearing Wednesday that he was following the orders of President Donald Trump in seeking a "quid pro quo" from Ukraine. Gordon Sondland -- whose appearance before Congress is being watched especially closely as he was a Trump ally -- said he believed the president was pressing Ukraine to investigate his potential 2020 rival Joe Biden. (Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP / via Getty Images)

I’ve watched every minute of the public impeachment hearings. I’m watching the Sondland testimony now, as I write. And I’d like to start this brief comment with an observation: anyone who cares about the future of democracy in the U.S. ought to do two things: read today’s Washington Post op-ed by Stacey Abrams: “Republicans’ extreme positions open the door for Democrats in Georgia,” and then commit themselves to work as hard as they can to support the kind of voter mobilization that Abrams, and many others, are promoting.

Only this can save us if we can be saved.

I have long argued that impeachment proceedings are one necessary form of resistance to the Trumpist assault on liberal democracy and that such proceedings ought to be understood primarily as political rather than narrowly legal processes. Everything that is now transpiring confirms this judgment.

Political scientists argue about what causes liberal democracy to come about and what sustains liberal democracy one it has been “consolidated.” Much of the contemporary public discussion has been shaped by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s important book, How Democracies Die. The book neatly articulates one critical political science perspective: that the key to liberal democracy is the existence of political elites — associated with several political parties — who are willing to seek power through free and fair competitive elections and to support the rule of law that structures such elections.

Midway through the current impeachment hearings, and halfway through the particularly damning testimony of Ambassador Sondland, two things are clear.

One is that Donald Trump came to power in part through collusion with Russia, and he has subsequently done everything in his power to obstruct inquiry into this collusion and then to arrange further collusion via Rudy Guliani, with the Ukrainian government to win re-election.

The second is that House Republicans, the Republican party, and in general, the media apparatus, are doing everything in their power to obstruct the impeachment inquiry and to undermine its integrity to smear many of its witnesses. They want to prevent their being any honest public accounting for the constitutional abuses of Trump.

To put this in another way, drawing in part on the argument of Levitsky and Way: it is now evident that one major political party in the U.S two-party system is now not (if it ever was) committed to the norms of liberal democracy. This party is not committed to anything approaching free and fair electoral competition. It is not committed to the notion of any Congressional oversight of the Presidency unless they control Congress (in which case it is committed to entirely bogus inquiries). It is not committed to the Constitution nor the rule of law.

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But it is committed to defending the power of its Leader (and of itself) by any means necessary, and that includes lying, character assassination, implications, and explicitly accusing witnesses of treason. Hence, they are committed to incitement of potential violence against witnesses as well as their critics and political opponents.

The impeachment is underway. It is, therefore, important for it to be vigorously and effectively prosecuted. I have repeatedly argued that this requires a broadening of the impeachment, and especially an explicit defense of the Mueller Report, and a willingness to link that report to the current hearings strongly. The Republicans repeatedly weaponize this Report as a symbol of Democratic “hoax” and “failure.” It is hard for me to understand how the Democrats can continue to ignore the Report — which was produced by a Justice Department-appointed Special Counsel and not the Congress, and was then killed by Trump obstruction and Barr lying — and fail to make use of its damning evidence.

But it seems pretty clear that a broader impeachment is not the course that will be taken by House Democrats. It also seems clear that the poison that is now spreading extends much deeper and more extensive than any impeachment hearing could mitigate.

If this is true, then it is also true that House Democrats and their impeachment proceedings cannot be relied upon to provide the kind of vigorous defense of democracy that we need.

They will conduct their business. They will prove beyond a shadow of any reasonable doubt that Trump’s administration endangers the Constitution. And their Republican counterparts will obstruct them at every turn and, regardless of “evidence” and principle and law, these Republicans will keep their Leader in office, and in the process further degrade due process, public discourse, and simple standards of empirical truth.

That brings me back to Stacey Adams. She represents a new generation of Democratic leadership and a newly mobilized Democratic party that is serious about grass-roots democracy. She also represents the future of democracy in the U.S. if there is to be one.

Trump and Barr and Pompeo and Nunes and Jordan and Graham and Johnson and the rest are enemies of constitutional democracy. And they must be defeated politically at the ballot box, so that we can be freed of their torments, and can begin the process of moving forward to make more real the promise of democracy.

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. His books include: Democracy in Dark Times (1998); The Poverty of Progressivism: The Future of American Democracy in a Time of Liberal Decline; and Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion.

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