The establishment strikes back at the deplorables. Part 4: Partisanship on steroids

Oct 15, 2019

The timing of the impeachment inquiry shows frustration. With uncharacteristic honesty, Democratic Representative Al Green confessed in May: ‘I’m concerned that if we don’t impeach this president, he will get reelected’. A speeded-up removal of Trump could well prove cathartic for the still-traumatised Democrats. In the Quinnipiac survey, respondents split 56-36 on whether the impeachment advocates are motivated mainly by ‘partisan politics’ or are reacting to facts. The perception of partisanship by Republicans and independents will ensure the Senate doesn’t bend to their whim and the country is left even more polarised and bitter.

Trump’s contumacy on Congressional subpoenas has further stoked inter-party and House-President tensions. But it also highlights departures from precedents on process – Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton – to reinforce partisan bitterness. Instead of proceeding after a vote in the House, Pelosi relied on a press announcement to launch the inquiry amidst a flurry of subpoenas. The inquiry will be conducted by the Intelligence and not Judiciary Committee when Ukrainegate has zilch to do with intelligence activities, enabling secrecy when the biggest challenge is to convince sceptical members of the public of grave presidential malfeasance. The Democrats are resisting calls to give the minority party power to subpoena witnesses as well, and for all witnesses to be cross-examined by lawyers from all sides, as was done in the Nixon and Clinton cases.

The Democrats command a majority in the House but not in the Senate. For Trump to be convicted by a two-thirds vote in the Senate, 20 Republicans must defect. Barring an unlikely smoking gun, the chances of that happening are miniscule. Meanwhile Washington and the country will be convulsed for months by an avoidable national trauma. Avoidable, because it is only a year to the next election when the people can pronounce judgment and cast the wicked Trump into the wilderness.

With Biden a roadkill on the Trump impeachment highway and Bernie Sanders now questionable after his health scare (he was fading in the polls already), the path seems clear for Elizabeth Warren to claim the party nomination. She has proven tough, resilient and a formidable candidate so far. On most issues that matter to Americans – including, dare I say it, character – the Democrats have the better story to tell. Instead their policy agenda will be drowned out in the impeachment hullabaloo. In addition the trauma inflicted on the country will inject the poison of partisan, scorched-earth opposition even deeper into the American body politic, when the existing level of divisiveness has already rendered Washington a totally dysfunctional seat of government.

A vote in favour of impeachment by a House divided along Democrat-Republican lines will be generally perceived by the public as partisan mischief and not a sober judgment. Will the cost to the nation prove worth it at the ballot box? And beyond? If they can prove extortion, Trump should definitely be impeached by the House, convicted by the Senate and removed from office. Conversely, if they oust him from the White House without the requisite proof, that’s when they will risk mass uprisings by his base that has held remarkably steadfast throughout the rollercoaster ride thus far.

Sabotaging Brexit

Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament has a long pedigree in British political history, some for even longer periods than his five weeks. When I was in Canada, PM Stephen Harper had his majority eliminated in the 2008 election and he prorogued Parliament rather than face defeat in a confidence vote on the floor. By the time Parliament reconvened, he had assembled a workable majority and lived to fight another day. He prorogued Parliament again in 2009 to frustrate a parliamentary committee inquiring into abuses of Afghan detainees.

Queen Elizabeth II welcomes newly-elected leader of the Conservative party, Boris Johnson during an audience in Buckingham Palace, London 24 July 2019, and invites him to become Prime Minister and form a new government. Photo by Victoria Jones/AFP/Getty Images

Like the prorogation, it must be noted, the UK Supreme Court’s decision too is controversial, without precedent and will have far-reaching implications long into the future. Unlike Johnson’s decision, however, the Court’s judgment cannot be challenged in any forum and unlike Johnson, the judges are not answerable politically to the people nor accountable to anyone else. In ruling that Johnson’s decision is justiciable, the courts have injected themselves into the political arena of the relationship between PM, Queen and Parliament on an intensely contested issue. Judicial overreach is not unknown in other countries but it does risk politicising the judiciary and attracting hostile criticism in consequence. In the context of the demographic cohorts that voted Leave, it’s worth emphasising that Supreme Court Justices are part of ruling elite. Adding to the anger against unelected EU elites bossing them around, Brexiteers will be aggrieved at unelected and unaccountable judges.

PM David Cameron decided on the referendum and promised to honour the result. The people voted 52-48 to leave the EU. By the standards of two-party parliamentary democracies, that is normally a comfortable victory. The problem is not the size of the referendum vote but Parliament, with 73% of MPs and 80% of Lords favouring Remain. No one could honestly claim that Britain’s MPs and EU authorities have negotiated in good faith to deliver on the people’s vote. The negotiations have been protracted, interminable, acrimonious and shambolic.

Johnson ended up as PM directly as a consequence of the chaos and shambles. He has offered at least three times to take the issue to a general election before the 31 October Brexit deal deadline, but been thwarted every time. Instead of going to the people, Remainers ran for cover to the courts. The legal victory is profoundly anti-democratic and Britons must remain imprisoned in an institution they can despise but never leave. Unconscious of the irony and oblivious to the Clintonesque condescension, one analyst writes: ‘Rather than yielding to some concocted “will of the people,” these institutions [Parliament and the Supreme Court] have emphasized that some principles are beyond majoritarian whims’.

In the US the Democrats are keen to void the 2016 outcome. Some enthusiasts note that Trump got 3 million fewer votes than Clinton, and so his ‘victory’ was illegitimate in any case. Similarly, in the UK, Remainers argue the Brexit referendum result was narrow, many who assumed it would be defeated stayed at home instead of voting, and the Leave campaign was illegitimate because it was built on lies. Most of this is just outright rubbish and deserves calling out. Allegations of misleading lies, deceit and hidden agendas are a recurring feature of pretty much every election in every democratic country. Well-established democracies operate by different voting systems and accept the outcomes as per those systems. I happen to think that Australia’s is among the most flawed but I do not thereby reject the outcome.

Neither the US presidential election nor the Brexit vote in the UK was as distorted compared to voter preferences as New Zealand’s last election that catapulted Jacinda Ardern, the deserved darling of the progressive camp, into the prime ministership. In the election held on 23 September 2017 under the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system, the incumbent National Party won 44.4% of the votes (-2.6) and 56 seats (-3). Labour won 36.9% of the votes (+11.8) and 46 seats (+6). There was no pre-poll alliance ahead of the election to shape people’s preferences. In a straight first-past-the-post parliamentary system, that would have been a landslide victory for the Nationals. Instead Ardern was able to come to terms with and work the MMP system better to forge post-poll alliances with the Green and New Zealand First parties and form a stable government. There has been no credible questioning of the legitimacy of her government either in NZ or internationally, not even by the National Party. That is exactly as it should be: play by the existing rules and accept the outcome.

In the US, the only way the decision to go down the impeachment path makes sense is if Democrats have given up hope of defeating Trump at the polls. Ditto the opponents of Brexit morphing into Remoaners: they are far from confident of being able to make their case to the people, despite the noisy claims of the lies in the referendum, the costs that have become more obvious, the clear benefits of EU membership, etc.

Recall Rashida Tlaib’s clarion call of impeachment, the timing, and the language. Recall Al Green’s confession of the fear of Trump’s re-election. And, most of all, recall Hillary Clinton’s contempt and condescension for the homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, racist and sexist ‘basket of deplorables’ who make up half the Trump voters. Sixty-three million Americans voted for him. If we reject the popular outcome because our moral and intellectual superiority elevates our judgment above their prejudices, we will drive them into armed insurrection and provoke civil conflict. That is simply a probabilistic statement, not a value judgment or an endorsement. Just look at what happened in Ukraine in 2014: it was entirely predictable and avoidable.

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