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The Democrats’ Stark, Historic Choice

Disempower the GOP now and preserve democracy, or squander the opportunity and lose the future.

Al Drago/Getty Images

Let’s get something straight. The press and many of our leaders have converged upon an implicit consensus that last Wednesday should be understood as the nadir of the Trump era—as a tipping point illustrating, for either the first or the most significant time, the deadly potential of his antics and rhetoric. They are wrong. In October 2018, a gunman animated by theories about migrant caravans that the president had promoted walked into a Pittsburgh synagogue and killed 11 people. Less than a year later, a gunman raging about an immigrant takeover of the country killed 23 in El Paso, Texas. The attack on the Capitol was a remarkable eventthe violent denouement of an extraordinary attack on a presidential election. But those murders were, too, offensives against the democratic principle. In fact, they were made for precisely the same reasons. Stewing in a political climate the president shaped, and certain of a conspiracy to wrest American society from its rightful owners, these men took action. They killed.

And we moved on⁠. The dampers and hydraulics of American political discourse absorbed the shock and kept us steadily on our path toward collapse. Tweets and tears, essays and columns, raised voices and mugging for cameras on cable televisioneach time, all of it preceded a forgetting so thorough, a refusal to deal seriously with the state of things so total, that we arrived at Wednesday’s events ready to have our eyes widened and our mouths set agape again, sputtering and stammering words we hoped would be of consequence.

By the end of the day, one of those words was impeachment—a measure that, for the majority of Trump’s presidency, and through what was arguably the worst of it, was characterized by Democratic leaders as a potentially divisive distraction. Upon the inauguration of the Democratic House majority in 2019, one incoming member promised she would support it. She was chastised for her profanity. When the turn toward impeachment inevitably came, out of leadership’s guilt over its inaction and a desire to placate restive elements within the Democratic caucus, the towering and unspeakable offense presented to the American people was an attempt at political skullduggery with the president of Ukraine.

But now, just over a week before the end of his term, members of the House have finally decided supporting articles against the president’s rhetoric are worth their time. And just as before, we should think and speak clearly about what impeachment might accomplish and what it likely will not. Even if the House votes for it, it is doubtful that the Senate will have or give itself the time for a trial before Trump leaves office. Even if the Senate conducts a trial, it is doubtful that it will vote to convict. Even if the Senate votes to convict, Trump, thanks to a conservative media infrastructure that would remain at his command, will retain the capacity to incite further violence after he leaves.

And yet, impeachment is worth pursuingand not just as an attempt, futile as it might be, to control Trump, oust him, or prevent him from running again in 2024. There should be another objective. Trump, as he himself has now conceded, will be leaving the White House. But he’ll be leaving behind in Washington a party whose elected officials, including currently serving members of the House and Senate, have been openly promoting lies about voter fraud and fantasies of insurrectionary violence against the federal government for over a decade now—well before a 2016 campaign was a twinkle in Trump’s eye. In fact, as it is now banal to say, it was their actions that laid the groundwork for his rise, run, and election to begin with.

Given this, impeachment should be understood as a second and final opportunity not only to hold the president accountable but to put the Republican Party as a whole on trial. This is not what Democratic ⁠leaders in the House and Senate intend. So Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and the rest of the party’s progressives now have a responsibility to use whatever platform the impeachment process affords them to force the issuein the hopes of swaying however few voters might be pulled away from the GOP and, more critically, of galvanizing support for the democratic reforms that might disempower it.

Because for all the cant we’ll soon be drowned in about the soul of the nation and healing, the Democratic Party and the country now face what is ultimately a problem of public policy. Today, less than half our population controls 82 percent of the Senate’s seats. By 2040, given current demographic trends, the most conservative third of the country alone will control nearly 70 percent of its seats. All of this amounts to a permanent and growing advantage for a party whose leaders greeted the president with applause at its winter meeting after Wednesday’s attack.

The Democrats will soon have the presidency. They will have the House of Representatives. By the skin on the skin of their teeth, they will have the Senate. They will, in sum, be entering into an alignment of power in Washington that we have every reason to believe is becoming exceptionally rare. And every actor within that trifecta will have a choice to make. Should a party that mounted a crusade against a legitimate election and the democratic processa party whose rhetoric has killedcontinue to accrue structural power? Or should the Democratic Party work to curb it? This question, as simple as it is, can be condensed further: Should the United States be a functional democracy or not?

The question is elementary, the answer is simple, and the proposed solutions have been discussed at length⁠ by not only activists but political scientists and constitutional scholars ⁠insisting that our federal political system as designed is no longer tenable, if it ever really was—a conclusion driven by facts that are increasingly difficult for even self-styled pragmatists to ignore. Last summer, the last Democratic president said that the legislative filibuster should be eliminated, if necessary, to pass a full restoration of the Voting Rights Act, expand the franchise, and grant statehood to Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. Although he’s backed these proposals, President-elect Joe Biden has yet to say straightforwardly that he, like Obama, would support eliminating the legislative filibuster to make them possible.

The events of last week demand that we give D.C. statehood special attention. Many have argued that what happened Wednesday might have been prevented if the District controlled its own national guard, as states do. Because the District is not a state, its guard was functionally under the control of the president who instigated the attack it was belatedly deployed against. But irrespective of how last week’s crisis might otherwise have been managed, Democrats on the Hill should appreciate this simple fact: Many of those whose lives were put at risk by the attack, citizens whose labor operates our legislature day in and day out, have no meaningful representation within it. The city of over 700,000 they reside inlarger by population than two states, majority-minority, marked by concentrated povertyregularly has its laws and initiatives blocked or undermined by Republican members of Congress from elsewhere in the country. Not once has this state of affairs provoked D.C.’s residents to an attempted seizure of the legislature lording over them. For their patience, they have been rewarded with lip service and indifference.

We came close, once, to giving them what they are owed. In 1978, Congress debated a constitutional amendment that would have granted the District the same voting rights as a statetwo senators and a representative with full rights in the House. “Human rights begin at home, here in the nation’s capital,” one senator said in a floor speech for the proposal. “The fact that more than 700,000 people do not have a voice in the election of those who write the nation’s laws is not a very good position from which to preach human rights.” Who was this? A longtime defender of political equality? A noted champion of racial justice? No. It was the ex-segregationist Strom Thurmond, who joined 66 other senatorsincluding Barry Goldwaterand 289 members of the House in passing the amendment and sending it to the states. But in an intimation of the political regime we’ve been living under and the ideology that would lead to all that happened Wednesday, it was rejected by conservative state legislatures. And now, more than 40 years later, Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are to Thurmond’s right on the question of whether the citizens of the District deserve full political rights.

Unlike the voting rights amendment, granting D.C. representation through statehood would take only the simple majorities in Congress the Democratic Party will now have, provided the pivotal legislators in the Senate vote to eliminate the legislative filibuster. Those legislators have pledged that they will not. Their opposition will doom any democratic reforms the party might put forwardnot just statehood for the District and other territories or a restructuring of the Supreme Court but the restoration of the Voting Rights Act and the expansion of the franchise that, again, Barack Obama called for at John Lewis’s funeral last year. A number of pundits have insisted that it will be impossible to move them, and that may be so. But there is an obligation to try; a responsibility that rests not only with activists but with the leaders of the party, who ought to show now that they’re capable of leaning as heavily upon the party’s moderates as they’ve proven themselves to be of leaning upon the party’s progressives over the last two months.

Heavy pressure not only from below but from the top: This is what we need. Will we get it? Almost certainly not. Any hope probably rests in Democratic leadership understanding this: If its party cannot use its majorities to pass significant legislation, progressive activists, donors, and voters will have little reason to take a significant interest in giving it majorities. At most, the party should then be seen as a bufferensuring Democrats hold at least one chamber of Congress to mitigate the damage of a Republican presidency will be worthwhile. But that’s it: Progressives and the Democrats under 45 who backed a socialist in last year’s presidential primary will have ample reason to leave congressional politics mostly behind. What counterargument could possibly be made to them? That Republicans will find it easier to win? If the democratic reform pushes fail, this will be the path the party’s leaders and pivotal legislators will themselves have chosen, given demographic trends and the design of the Senate. Those who disengage will be guilty only of sharing their diffidence about the party’s future.

A word about the past: The discourse has been thick, recently, with allusions to the Civil War and Reconstructionsome of them coming, curiously, from Republicans mischaracterizing the aftermath of the election of 1876. But even the opportunistic references suggest a broad recognition that we’ve arrived at a decisive moment in the trajectory of this country. The Democratic Party is brimming with confidence that it will be on the right side of history, whichever direction we take. But it should heed well the central lesson of the Reconstruction era: America cannot, will not, and should not be brought together if the price for accord is a refusal to defend the civil and political rights of all Americans. For history will condemn not only the new Redeemers but those preparing to squander yet another chance to found American democracy anew.