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Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) speaks at the event in the Capitol on Tuesday, March 10, 2020.

Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) speaks at the event in the Capitol on Tuesday, March 10, 2020. (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc. via Getty Images)

Now Is the Time to Really Prosecute the Case Against Trump—By Pivoting to Real Democratic Reform

Any approach to moving forward must reckon with the fact that one of this country's two major parties is no longer committed to multiracial democracy.

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Impeachment 2.0 has now come and gone. 

It’s over. 

The case was made. The opposition between constitutionalism and thuggery was staged before the public on the floor of the United States Senate. Each side did what it does best. And the very best constitutional lawyering could not prevent the acquittal of Donald T. Trump, the autocrat who tortured us for four years and plagues us still.

Weeks ago I questioned the political wisdom of a Senate impeachment trial. I stand by the concerns I raised. But since the trial began, I have tried to see the “merits” of the process. The brilliance of Jamie Raskin was never in doubt, and he did not disappoint (nor did his colleague and former student Stacey Plaskett). But Trump’s acquittal was a foregone conclusion, and I doubted whether the possible “benefits” associated with “doing the right thing” very publicly were great enough to justify the costs—the “victory lap” Trump’s inevitable acquittal would afford him, and the slowing of the momentum behind the new Biden-Harris administration.

"The challenge ahead is not simply to advance democratic reforms in the face of obstruction, but to advance them in the face of determined ideological opposition."

I still have these doubts. 

But what’s done is done. And so, instead of questioning the political judgment of some people I really respect, I prefer now to challenge them—and all of us—to make real what they claimed the impeachment trial would do—to do the real work of strengthening democracy.

The challenge can be simply put: what can be done, now, to make sure that Impeachment 2.0 does not go the way of Impeachment 1.0—powerful and righteous performances of constitutional principle by Schiff, Raskin, et al. that immediately recede into historical memory with minimal political consequence (and I will remind readers that the entirely justified impeachment of Trump in 2020 produced almost no political advantage whatsoever, and was not even a campaign issue this past year)?

What is to be done?

Here are some modest proposals.

First, the appointment of a serious Presidential “Democracy Commission.” Trump’s “1776 Commission” was a joke, malevolently intended to repudiate the New York Times’s 1619 Project, which was and is not a joke, but a brilliant, multi-media effort to promote a rethinking of the role of racism in U.S. history.

If the New York Times can promote the rethinking of racism so effectively, might it perhaps be possible for the U.S. government to promote a similar rethinking of democracy? Many “blue ribbon” groups have recently put out reports on this topic. Perhaps the most notable is the recent American Academy of Arts and Sciences report, “Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century.” The American Political Science Association indeed publishes reports like this almost annually (back in 2004, for example, then-APSA President Theda Skocpol commissioned a Task Force report on “American Democracy in an Age of Rising Inequality”; and more recently, 2020-APSA President Rogers Smith commissioned a Task Force report on “New Partnerships” that centered on questions of civic engagement). 

What if the Biden administration put together a serious Commission or Task Force on “Renewing American Democracy” that was serious about using every important medium, including digital social media, to teach young people, and indeed to teach all people, about democracy, about the history of democratic struggles, about the “logic” of constitutional democracy, about the U.S. Constitution and its history and its virtues and its serious vices, and about the threats to democracy today—with the recent insurrection as a very vivid case study. Such a Task Force could involve major scholarly professional associations and academic institutions; a range of civic education, voter mobilization, and community groups; civil rights organizations and unions; journalists, including those specializing in the new media; major foundations; and public educators at every level. 

This could be a high-profile effort that is deliberately framed as a way of continuing the work begun this past week on the Senate floor. Those enthusiastic about the impeachment trial as a form of “public education” have a key role to play here. The documentary evidence, and the brilliant arguments of Raskin and his colleagues, need to be kept alive, by being incorporated in a serious way into serious public education—something that doesn’t simply happen because smart people say smart things about the Constitution on TV. 

If the past week was truly a “moment of reckoning” for American democracy, then it is imperative to sustain that reckoning, and deepen it, and do the hard work of spreading it and keeping its spirit alive and meaningful to citizens. This is a major civic educational task. It could even be pitched as the “real victory” of the impeachment process.

Second, pass H.R. 1, the “For the People Act of 2021,” immediately. This legislation would “expand Americans’ access to the ballot box, reduce the influence of big money in politics, strengthen ethics rules for public servants, and implement other anti-corruption measures for the purpose of fortifying our democracy, and for other purposes.”

Third, pass the “John Lewis Voting Rights Enhancement Act,” which will institute major voter rights reforms designed to counter the very undemocratic consequences of the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court decision.

Passing these two bills has been on the Democratic “agenda” for quite some time now.

Now is the time to link these bills, to thrust them to the forefront of public attention, to do major political education and political mobilization in support of them, and to explicitly link their passage to the constitutional crisis connected to the January 6 insurrection.

The message should be clear: “Our democracy is hanging on by a thread, and the autocratic danger represented by Trumpism has only barely been averted, and now is the time to build on the ‘momentum’ of the impeachment trial, and the public learning it promoted, to pass strong legislation to strengthen democracy.”

Such a determined effort is perfectly consistent with the necessity of passing “Covid relief” and legislation to promote economic reconstruction and “Build Back Better.”

Linking the allocation of real material benefits for ordinary citizens with an agenda of civic inclusion and democratic empowerment could be a way of simultaneously building support for both.

And indeed, the Biden-Harris campaign rhetoric centered on just such a linkage.

There are obviously enormous political obstacles to doing anything at this moment. And the kinds of “democratizing” legislation I am proposing would face a very specific obstacle—the Senate filibuster. (The Commission idea can be accomplished with relative ease; but on its own, such an effort can easily become yet one more forum for ineffectual deliberation about problems that really require constructive action.)

Perhaps the Senate Republican majority’s spineless conduct during the impeachment trial will persuade center-right Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to relax their opposition to ending the filibuster. For there can be no doubt that the filibuster is a deeply anti-majoritarian device that is a major impediment to democracy. And there can be even less doubt that the Republican party is still the party of Trump and that, whatever fractures may be emerging, Congressional Republicans in both Houses can be counted upon to obstruct a Democratic legislative agenda.

Any approach to moving forward must reckon with the fact that one of this country’s two major parties is no longer committed to multiracial democracy. The challenge ahead is not simply to advance democratic reforms in the face of obstruction, but to advance them in the face of determined ideological opposition.

I am no master strategist, and I have no master strategy.

But I do think that it might be possible for Democrats who have been understandably focused on the justice of an impeachment trial to pivot from Saturday’s Senate acquittal of Trump to a robust democratic agenda that is not focused on Trump but is very much focused on remedying the serious problems that gave rise to Trump, and might yet allow the plague he unleashed upon us to rise up again.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
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" (2003), and "Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion" (1994).

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