Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Why Are Good Progressives At Each Others' Throats?

There comes a time when two parties, after arguing in earnest and with the best of intentions, find that all their superficial disagreements and conflicts of point of view are boiled down to irresolvable and fundamental philosophical differences about the nature of human events. Indeed, when two otherwise reasonable and strongly allied factions argue passionately at cross-purposes, it is essential to discover once and for all why they differ, and to resolve the philosophical differences that divide the parties.

There are few better examples of such an argument than today's conflict over impeachment, succinctly expressed in MissLaura's frontpage post today. After no fewer than six recommended diaries yesterday advocating impeachment (including my own) and a frontpage post by Meteor Blades, Digby laid out in her brilliant and incomparable fashion the best possible counterargument to those demanding this extroardinary political act.

Digby's argument is one that I made in poorer fashion many times prior to my conversion to the pro-impeachment camp. To quote Digby:

But even so, that's not necessarily a good enough reason not to do it. It could be useful, if only to tie the administration up in knots until they leave the scene. But the risks are high that if you don't have a specific (and somewhat simple) crime to point to and a good chance of at least getting a quick impeachment vote in the House, that it could blow back pretty hard on the Dems. This is not because people like Bush and don't want him out of office. It's because they see that the presidential campaign is in full swing and know that Bush will be out of office soon anyway. That means many of them will likely be susceptible to the inevitable GOP screeching that the petty Democrats are playing politics, going for payback, wasting time etc. And the media will be thrilled to help the Republicans make that case.

That's not the only case that can be made against impeachment. There are many other concerns as well, including that the future is more important than the past, that the public wants solutions rather than partisan recriminations, that we actually have an opportunity to frame ourselves for a change rather than let the public be told what we stand for by Republicans, and that Bush's/Cheney's replacement would likely be Republican--and that I wouldn't want Nancy Pelosi installed as president through impeachment. Finally, as MissLaura says:

When we remember that impeachment is a nuclear political act, also remember that nuclear explosions produce nuclear fallout. We need to know the winds before we launch. To me, it's too likely the fallout would blow right over our heads. Would that really be a defense of the Constitution?

So much, so good for the arguments against impeachment. The standard arguments for impeachment, meanwhile, are well-known to all. These include:
  • That Bush/Cheney must be removed as soon as possible
  • That history will judge poorly those who did not stand against criminal action
  • That the Constitution is worth defending at all costs
  • That justice itself demands prosecution for crimes
  • That Dems will look stronger, rather than weaker, for having stood up to Bush

My intent here is not to advocate for or argue against any of these positions for or against impeachment. Some of them are well-considered; others less so (on both sides.)

My intent, rather, is to highlight why there can be such fundamental disagreement among these parties, and what the fundamental philosophical difference may be.

The answer, as it so happens, is not a terribly complex one--but it is an answer that goes to the very heart of what the Progressive movement at large and the Netroots in specific is attempting to accomplish. At the heart of the divide between the pro-impeachment progressives and those who remain skeptical of it is a fundamental dichotomy of trust. In the end, every argument for and against boils down to whether one trusts more in the power of individuals and ideologies, or in the power of structures and the constraints they place upon power itself.

Those who oppose impeachment are desperately afraid--and I don't necessarily blame them--that using up the oxygen of time, media coverage and political power on impeachment proceedings will harm Democrats irreparably as we enter the 2008 election season. They argue somewhat convincingly that all the strong stands against Bush/Cheney in the world will not serve anyone of any political stripe when Rudy McRomneyson takes the oath of office in January 2009, and the Bush/Cheney approach to governance receives a popular mandate. They argue, quite rightly, that a successful impeachment is unlikely--and that even if successful, it would be lengthy process that would not effectively cut short the rule of Bush/Cheney for more than a few months.

It is not my purpose here to poke holes in these arguments--though they are by no means unassailable. Certainly, the Republicans did not face dire electoral consequences for impeaching a very popular Bill Clinton. But let us instead take these arguments at face value, and take it as a given that Democrats will suffer somewhat electorally as a byproduct of a failed impeachment drive, while doing little to actually defray the consequences of Republican control of the White House.

These arguments rest on one presumption and one alone: That the election of Democrats in 2008 is the paramount and highest political goal over the next 18 months. That we can do little to preserve our Democracy while Bush remains in power--but that once we get Democrats in power with the right governing priorities and ideological stances, we'll be back on track. It is the same idea as that presented on a DCCC fundraising request I received today in the mail from Nancy Pelosi:

Democrats are determined to end the war in Iraq, move forward on energy independence, address global warming, start tackling America's health care crisis, and take all the other long-overdue steps needed to lead our nation out of the Bush morass. But, the Bush Administration and its Rubber Stamp Republican allies in Congress are throwing everything they've got into holding onto power and putting the special interests ahead of the American people.

As Speaker of the House I am asking you to stay with us. Don't yield to cynicism or frustration, like the Republicans want you to do. Help us win the hard-fought struggles we need to win in the days and weeks ahead that can help us make lasting real change to take America in a New Direction.

We need your steadfast support as we confront an Administration that long ago lost touch with reality. And, even as we work side by side to force the Bush Administration to face the facts in 2007, we need you to help our Democratic candidates take their message to voters in 2008.

In other words, Democratic ideologues are being blocked by Republican ideologues; don't get angry with us because we aren't getting anything effective accomplished--just work with us to get rid of the Republican ideologues in '08 so we can move forward on Iraq, energy and healthcare. In sum, they say, put the right people in power with the right ideas, and everything will be fine.

Those of us who favor impeachment, on the other hand, find all such arguments utterly hollow and tragically misguided. We do so because we understand that this battle is not, fundamentally, a partisan one but rather a structural one. We believe that any individual--regardless of party affiliation or ideology--who usurps authority and obliterates balance of power as Bush/Cheney have done is just as dangerous to Democracy as Bush/Cheney themselves. As I said in To Impeach or Not to Impeach: That is Not the Question:

The question at hand is not "What Do We Do About Bush?" or "How Do We Move America Forward in a Progressive Direction?" or even "How Do We Put Bush Behind Us and Create A Lasting Democratic Majority?" The real question at hand is instead "How in the world did this happen in America--and more importantly, how do we stop it from ever happening again?"

As evil as the NeoConservative agenda has clearly been, as utterly deficient in competence and moral compass as the Religious Right has been, as predictably disastrous as placing a formerly cocaine-addicted sociopathic dry drunk with a silver spoon in his mouth and serious daddy issues has been, and as monumentally insane as having former Nixon protégés be in charge of Executive secrecy and power has been, it should still shock Americans with a sense of civics and history how easy it has been for a nutso Commander-in-Chief and his morally-challenged cronies to subvert the Consitution, the will of the American People, and the very foundations of Democracy in a few short years. Had you told me back in 1999 that this could have happened in America even with the worst of leaders, I would have laughed in your face. I had confidence in the power of our structural institutions back then that I utterly lack today. For me, the key question--indeed, the only question--is how to effectively stop even the worst of madmen from ever having the power to wreak such havoc again.

Now, while it is true that impeachment itself does not necessarily block Unitary Executive theories of governance in and of itself, it certainly is a step in the right direction. Specific legislation or even Constitutional Amendments clarifying once and for all the exact limits of executive power may be necessary. But any impeachment proceeding does far more to address these issues than simply standing by and hoping for the election of a Democratic President.

Many of us who support impeachment, indeed, would rather elect a Giuliani who does NOT use Unitary Executive powers than a Hillary/Obama who DOES use them. That is utter heresy to ears of many--especially at a site whose ostensible goal is getting Democrats elected. But history has seen far too many Republics fall into Empire for our taste: Augustus may have been a good Emperor, but it doesn't matter; Caligula's always right behind.

For structuralists like us, the election of the right individual or ideologue in the context of the erosion of limits on power themselves is but a salve on an open wound. For us, individuals will never salvage anything. Individuals are corrupt, weak and short-lived; ideologies come and go, mutable with the change of times, circumstances and public whim. The framers understood that structure was everything and trumped political ideology or factional affiliation--re-read the Federalist Papers if you don't believe this. Individual elections and individual officials are but tumbleweeds passing through the pillars of structure. Either this question of limits on executive power gets resolved permanently, or our Republic will have a dictator elected on 4-year cycles. Tyranny is only a short milepost ahead on this road.


This question goes beyond impeachment. It is a fundamental divide that is at the heart of what it means to have a progressive movement. It is at the heart of many divides and bitter arguments between progressive blogger communities.

Are we a collection of activists dedicated to the maximum success of the Democratic Party at all costs, or do we seek to do what we believe necessary to preserve the Republic even at the price of potential electoral cost? Shall our calculus be only that of the impact on the next election, or shall it be on that of the impact on the nation at large? Do we believe that Republican rule is the greatest evil to be feared, or that unchecked power itself is the greatest evil to be feared?

This argument to me is similar to that of the two protagonists in the outstanding film Crimson Tide: with hot nuclear confrontation looming between the United States and a crazed Russian coup leader, there is a power struggle on a U.S. nuclear submarine between the Captain played by Gene Hackman and the XO played by Denzel Washington. With orders in hand to fire nuclear missiles at Russia, the sub loses contact with Washington headquarters even as another aborted message was just arriving. Hackman's captain, looking to defend the United States at all costs against its enemy Russia and follow orders to the letter of the law, insists on firing the nukes. Denzel's XO insists that nuclear war itself is the danger to be feared, and demands that the sub do everything in its power to regain contact with the Pentagon--even at the expense of danger to the crew and to American lives at home. After twin mutinies on board and near catastrophe, Denzel wins and the final message arrives not to fire the nuke. While both men were right, both were also wrong--and it is a question that plagues anyone charged with the possible use of nuclear power to this day.

The similar question for Progressives is as follows: are Republicans the greatest danger we face? Or do we face an even greater danger in allowing Unitary Executive Power and utter disregard for the laws of the United States to go unchecked, unpunished and unrebuked?

It is a fundamental question that we must resolve--and quickly.

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Blogger Batocchio said...

That's a very nice summation and analysis, Spoon. I'm more in favor of impeachment now that I was a few months ago. There's never been a question of whether Gonzales, Cheney and Bush deserve impeachment. The impediments have been political. Impeachment is a bit hollow when there's no chance for conviction, but it could be politically powerful. The problem is that, for all Bush's deserved unpopularity, there's no simple, clear crime, no smoking gun in the fashion of Nixon. In a just world, the entire lot of them would be out, and now. However, I think the most important thing is to keep digging and keep exposing the dirty tricks of this crew. As disastrous as they've been, they're the Nixon and Iran-Contra gang all over again (quite literally), and a public and permanent discrediting of their movement is even more important than removing the current thugs from office. They will never stop, ever, voluntarily. All that said, a large, growing vocal impeachment movement would help. Impeachment, even without conviction, would be powerful if the GOP fought it in opposition to the will of the people — just as they fought the will of the people when they impeached Clinton!

Honestly, I'm most concerned about Bush bombing Iran on the way out the door, regardless of what the Dems do. It really is alarming how far basic sanity and maturity are banished from this White House.

All that said, I think it can be dangerous to set up false dichotomies. I'm no fan of Hillary either, but Giuliani has shown he's a diehard authoritarian, as are most of the GOP candidates. I'd say even the worst Democratic candidate currently in the race is better than than the best of the Republicans (although we can certainly disagree on that). Opposing the Unitary Executive Theory primarily means opposing authoritarians, and they are overwhelmingly conservative, as they always will be. I certainly would oppose any Democrat who acted a reckless, authoritarian way, and I believe most liberals (if not all Democrats) would. But your thoughts on greater principles versus mere expendiency/political calculus are well taken.

10:17 AM  
Blogger thereisnospoon said...


4:21 PM  

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