Looking at Impeachment From the Left

How should the Left view the impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump? Are they a political opportunity or a distraction from the issues that leftists care about? A Jacobin roundtable.

US Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) holds up a copy of a transcript provided by the Trump administration of the phone call between US president Donald Trump and the Ukrainian president while speaking about the start of an impeachment inquiry at the US Capitol on September 25, 2019 in Washington, DC. Win McNamee / Getty

Samuel Moyn (SM)
Max B. Sawicky (MBS)
Liza Featherstone (LF)
Seth Ackerman (SA)

What should the Left’s attitude be towards the impeachment proceedings?

To get to the bottom of that question, Jacobin’s Seth Ackerman and Liza Featherstone spoke with two Jacobin contributors who view the issue from different angles: Samuel Moyn of Yale Law School and Max Sawicky, an economist formerly with the Economic Policy Institute and the federal Government Accountability Office.

The transcript of this conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Liza Featherstone

We’ve been hearing a lot about impeachment, of course. It has its impassioned advocates like Rashida Tlaib — “Impeach the Motherfucker” — and a lot of excitement around it among grassroots Democrats and definitely among liberal folks in the media.

Yet there’s some coolness toward it in some parts of the Left. Sam, you recently expressed your doubts in an article for the Guardian. Max disagrees with that ambivalence; he says we on the Left should be just as excited about impeachment as Rashida Tlaib.

Sam, what are your hesitations?

Samuel Moyn

I don’t come out against impeachment in the piece or anywhere else, but I’m very worried that we haven’t taken the risks seriously.

Legally, it’s not as if this is the first moment in the impeachment dynamic. It’s been haunting us for years, really. We were told that the goods were going to be available thanks to Robert Mueller; a huge amount of the conversation was sucked up by what turned out to be a dud. Not that there was no illegality reported in the Mueller report, but it was much less flagrant than initially expected. I’m very worried that it will turn out, once we’ve had some time to process this, that there’s going to be a lot of disagreement about what exactly was illegal about what Donald Trump did. Now, I wrote my piece before the whistleblower report came out, but just based on the transcript, I would not say it’s totally clear what exactly was being promised and in exchange for what.

But although I’m a law professor, my main reservations are political rather than legal. I would list three.

First off, let’s put this bluntly: impeachment is helping Republicans reclaim their party after the 2016 disaster. You’ve had huge enthusiasm among the Never-Trump Republicans for impeachment because it would solve the main problem they’re facing, which is that they lost control of the state, and of their own party.

Second, impeachment, if it were successful and led to Trump’s removal, would put Mike Pence in power.

But third and most important is it really depends who’s in charge of impeachment and how it’s framed. Adam Schiff and many others are not concerned about saving the Democratic Party from its historical errors, including its own disaster in 2016. Lots of folks are seeing impeachment as a way of removing a political opponent rather than reinventing the Democratic Party or part of crafting a policy that a lot of voters, including some of Donald Trump’s voters in 2016, want, which is to wrest the state from elites and attack endless war, economic inequality, and many other baleful things that both parties have brought us over the past generation.

If impeachment becomes a distraction from that much more pressing campaign to save the Democratic Party for the Left, then it will have been a disaster. Now, it could work in another way. I appreciate that Max and others contend that impeachment could serve the Left, but we have to be honest what the risks are, not just what the opportunities are.

Liza Featherstone

Max, you wrote your piece to respond to exactly this kind of ambivalence. What’s the Left case for impeachment?

Max B. Sawicky

I think what we’re talking about is what the Left should do; I don’t run the Democratic Party and I’m not trying to save it in its current state. My objective is certainly not a restoration of neoliberal regimes under Obama and Clinton. The question for me is how to build the Left, and what are the main priorities of the Left, and how do we advance them.

Now, I would say the top priority is to do whatever can be done to prevent Trump remaining in office for a second term. There we run the risk of a much more complete erosion of whatever democratic institutions we have left. If those are gone, then nothing else happens either. There’s no Medicare for All, there’s no Fight for $15, there’s nothing. We’d go down a darker and darker path.

I would like to see the Left pitch in and create its own identity around this. Now, in that context, it’s important to avoid the very narrow, centrist case that we’re likely to see from some people in the House, led by Nancy Pelosi. Nobody is going to get excited about which server in the White House holds which dirty secret. The Left’s approach to this, to me, should be a broad indictment which encompasses the legal stuff, but is not limited to it and doesn’t get lost in the weeds of it.

I think that there are a couple different political purposes. First of all, it helps to tie up the administration. When I say a “wide net,” by the way, I mean including Mike Pence, who was implicated in this latest mess, and a bunch of other people whom Trump has actually helped to implicate through what he’s been saying. He wants to either survive or bring everybody down with him, and I think that’s a good situation for our side.

This is a political weapon for the Left and if we forego it, then we really risk ceding the whole game to the centrists game. In that situation, whether they win or they lose, the Left loses. Impeachment is a weapon against the wavering and narrow approach to this within the Democratic Party. It’s a weapon against any Republican officeholder in the 2020 elections who votes to save the president, which I think could be crucial in the Senate elections.

If you’re trying to build a mass political organization, and your appeals are being totally obscured by some other topic that everybody else is talking about, then you’re doing it wrong. I think the Left needs to jump into this and put its own spin on it. I think the risks of not doing that are greater than the risks of doing it.

Seth Ackerman

Max, when you talk about the Left putting its own stamp on this with a different sort of message, what sort of message do you have in mind?

Max B. Sawicky

It’s about defending democracy, broadly speaking, as well as zeroing in on the most egregious violations of human rights by the administration. And when I say the administration, I also mean the Republican Party, which as we know has stood completely behind him from the beginning, and still shows fairly few signs of wavering, at least in public.

Seth Ackerman

But aren’t those all arguments that the Democrats in the House are already going to make — that he’s violated the norms of democracy, that he’s engaged in corruption?

Max B. Sawicky

Well, the formal process of impeachment really loads that ammunition into the gun. It involves hearings where all the gory details are brought out. When people hear the details, it’s much more impressive than just hearing the generalities.

Samuel Moyn

I do think Max has a point that there’s such momentum that has now built up after the dam broke around the Ukrainian call, that it seems as if it would be foolish for the Left not to be involved, and not to try to put its stamp on the results. The trouble is that that argument sort of sounds like the old adage, “If you can’t beat them, join them.”

And I’m just not sure how it’s going to happen that the Left, or progressives, can own the impeachment proceedings. Right now the debate within the Democratic caucus in the House of Representatives has been about whether to have a narrow and quick impeachment count around whatever happened in the Ukrainian situation, or to return to the Mueller report and a broader interpretation of presidential malfeasance.

But even the broader definition is not going to encompass the issues that progressives rightly want to put at the center of national debate — for example, the atrocities of Trump’s immigration regime. I do think there’s an opportunity in the impeachment scenario for the Left to say that the two parties created this extraordinarily powerful presidency — with lots of power over things like immigration and foreign policy — and now they’re upset mainly because Donald Trump emerged and got hold of the reins of power that the two parties created.

More broadly, I think we should honestly concede that Trump has proved a lot weaker than many of those who thought the sky would fall anticipated. That’s because the Republicans who seem to be craven and compliant in Congress have actually controlled much of Trump’s agenda. That’s why what Trump has produced outside the area of executive authority (as in immigration) is libertarian tax cuts and right-wing judges; both are really congressional and remind us of where power resides. It’s also the congressional agenda that the Left ought to denounce.

In sum, the impeachment hearings could become a kind of referendum on how to diminish the imperial presidency. But my sense is that that’s not going to happen, and it would be much better for the Left to put its claims about endless war and economic inequality to the people and try to figure out how to construct a majority for stopping those things — a majority that I think is out there in the country. Impeachment seems unrelated to that effort.

Seth Ackerman

One aspect of the story that we haven’t talked about yet is that it looks likely that in any impeachment proceedings, Joe Biden is going to be in one way or another implicated, or at least Republicans will try to implicate him. I wonder what the two of you think about that? Is that a political upside?

I’d especially like Max to answer this question. Because if this impeachment debate ends up turning into a forum for putting both parties — the whole political establishment —on trial for corruption, that would be a quite different version of impeachment than the one you outlined just now. But would it be a good thing or a bad thing?

Max B. Sawicky

I don’t think it would ever come to that. Half the political establishment is not going to participate in an indictment that includes itself. The Biden thing to me is a sideshow. My bet would be that his candidacy crumbles in any case. Of course Trump will try to use it, but I don’t think it will amount to anything.

Now, the way the House conducts these proceedings is inevitably going to be more narrow and legalistic and technical than would really be suitable from a progressive standpoint. I think the value for the Left in jumping onto this and creating its own narrative around it is that it sends the message, it amplifies the message, that this presidency — and that includes the vice president — is fundamentally illegitimate, and everything that it has done with the complete participation of the Republican Party is likewise illegitimate.

Of course there are many specific policy nodes that dramatize that. The value of the proceedings is that they make the whole thing more compelling to the public. The public’s not going to be absorbed in the weeds of the legal details. People are going to watch the hearings and look for fireworks. From the Left’s standpoint, there’s much more ripe fruit to harvest here.

Seth Ackerman

Just to press a bit on this, if Trump is impeached by the House, which looks pretty likely, then there’s going to be a trial in the Senate. And in the trial there’s going to be a prosecution and a defense, and the Republicans are going to manage the defense. It’s ultimately a political process, which means the Republicans will almost certainly try to introduce all kinds of evidence and make all kinds of arguments attempting to depict the other side as being just as bad. I assume Biden will probably be the focus of that.

My question is, when you talk about the Left putting its own stamp on impeachment, do you think that its attitude towards that sort of dynamic should be, “No, it’s a distraction to talk about Biden or the Democrats, we should just focus just on Trump”? Or do you think that the Left ought to look at this as an opportunity to put the whole system on trial?

Max B. Sawicky

Of course the Republicans will say, “Both sides do it and it’s okay.” I think the facts do not support that. The two sides are not equally egregious in their behavior — certainly if we’re comparing the Obama administration to the current one.

I think when you look at the clear difference on that front —in which the Biden story is really a minor episode — combined with the more general array of egregious policies by the administration, I think the Democrats have the better of the argument there. I think they can make that effectively.

Now they may not get enough Republican votes or any Republican votes. But I think by making that case and using that against Republican senators up for reelection, I think that would give them the better of the argument.

Samuel Moyn

It’s a really interesting question. I guess I would start by saying that the very fact that Trump was elected, and the fact that Democratic centrists were challenged from the Left so profoundly in 2016, suggests that there’s already been a lot of elite delegitimation in this country. You could say, “The more, the better,” of course. But you could also worry that what we need now is to put out a more constructive program for the American people who have lost faith in their elites. Impeachment is not likely to help in that regard.

My bigger qualm on this front is that it’s just a mistake to get too enthusiastic about the opportunities without noting the risks. The likelier outcome of impeachment, if Joe Biden is brought in, is that he comes out smelling like a rose. We know that Bill Clinton did, in a sense — maybe wrongly. So impeachment does not necessarily benefit the more progressive candidates. And it could happen that impeachment benefits Biden, not the reverse.

What would certainly be best for the Left is to put the focus on the actual differences in our vision of America and the contest between centrists and progressives. That’s not going to be what impeachment does.

Liza Featherstone

David Brooks recently had a column I found somewhat convincing — which worried me about myself. He argued that in an election year, what elites would be saying to Americans with this impeachment process is, you screwed up in the last election and many of you are racist, so now we’re going to take charge.

To him, the question was: why would Democrats want to do this when they are now having this lively primary where a lot of different ideas are being aired? Isn’t that the way the democratic process is supposed to work? I guess I wonder, Sam, does it worry you to find yourself agreeing with David Brooks? Max, how do you respond to that argument?

Samuel Moyn

I do find myself in somewhat frightening agreement with David Brooks. I think that on some issues people like him are talking sense, because they’re not — for their own very different reasons — swept up in the impeachment enthusiasm, which I think has been more emotional than strategic.

Brooks gives a laundry list of concerns, which means some are real and some are not. And I do think he is on firm ground to wonder if impeachment is really about elites and their struggle for power. Its endgame is really not about what the people should get out of government, but rather which elites control government, both within the Democratic and especially in the Republican parties.

Could the Left make it a more populist impeachment? I guess it’s possible, but it still strikes me as an unlikely outcome of the whole process.

Liza Featherstone

Max, what do you think of these concerns?

Max B. Sawicky

If the Left abstains from this, then it will be a contest of elites. In that case, it does matter who wins, because I think a Trump reelection would be a disaster. A Democratic replacement, including Biden, would be much to be preferred. I think we can hope for more than that. The Left has been advancing, and its main objectives have been getting increasingly popular. When you’re in a wave like that, I would say you press the advantage, and that means jumping in, broadening the focus, putting a left face on it that hopefully can rally increasing numbers of people.

Liza Featherstone

Sam, do you want to respond to that?

Samuel Moyn

I certainly agree that it’s a priority to eject Donald Trump from office. But I think the pathologies of the country that led to Trump ought to be the main focus, because Trump inherited a lot of things that the party elites on both sides had constructed, including an imperial presidency with powers at home and abroad, and rising economic inequality, which I think the majority of Americans are concerned about.

For that reason, I actually think that the Democrats have a chance to appeal to precisely these issues, and I worry that impeachment will lead them astray.

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Samuel Moyn is Henry R. Luce professor of jurisprudence at Yale Law School and a professor of history at Yale University.

Max B. Sawicky is an economist and writer in the wilds of Virginia. He has worked at the Government Accountability Office and the Economic Policy Institute.

Liza Featherstone is a columnist for Jacobin, a freelance journalist, and the author of Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart.

Seth Ackerman is Jacobin's executive editor.

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