When, hours after being sworn in, democratic socialist Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib told an audience, “We’re going to impeach the motherfucker,” she put herself at the center of a heated strategic debate that is currently fracturing alliances among liberals and the left.
“The Resistance” — the self-described coalition of moderate (mostly Democrat) voters that coalesced as formation in the frantic weeks following Hillary Clinton’s loss — is made up of the most activated people in the Democratic and progressive base. They hate President Trump, see that he has committed impeachable offenses, and want to see politicians take him to task, including through impeachment. But many in the Democratic Party leadership are hitting the brakes, and the left — socialists and long-term progressive activists — should see this as an opportunity. It is the job of socialists and progressives to change what is politically possible by directing existing political currents, rather than accepting them as a given.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is forcefully making the case that Democrats should tamp down impeachment expectations and focus on elections. By pitting electoral success against impeachment hearings, Pelosi is creating an artificial binary that limits the political possibilities of impeachment while sidelining, and potentially demobilizing, a highly activated power base of Democratic voters. Inherent within this “pragmatic” style of politics is the notion that it is better to not fight than to take on a fight you might lose (regardless of merit). This approach to politics has a dismal track record and represents an all-too-familiar dynamic of Democrats in power abandoning, undercutting and disempowering their activist base.
A left-wing impeachment plan can sever the base from the party leadership. It can allow the left to take initiative both in mobilizing the Democratic base to defeat Trump, and helping to shape the political character of that base. We can use impeachment to turn the animosity of regular Democratic voters against the oligarchs, demonstrate that socialists and our structural critiques are the strongest bulwark against the far right, and begin to realign the balance of power away from the imperial presidency while building a constituency for radical democratic reform.
As Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin famously noted, “Politics begin where the masses are, not where there are thousands, but where there are millions, that is where serious politics begin.” To understand the current moment, we need a sound analysis of the biggest political development since Trump’s election — the outpouring of protest and grassroots organizing known as “The Resistance.”
The women’s marches of 2017 and 2018 were the two largest protest mobilizations — ever — in U.S. history. That outpouring of opposition was not a flash in the pan. It has translated into independent organizing through more than 6,000 resistance groups, vastly outstripping the Tea Party, even at its peak. Despite the size of The Resistance, the socialist left has paid too little attention, and had no strategic orientation for this organizing at all — other than to occasionally dismiss its grassroots membership as nothing more than dupes of the Russia conspiracists on Twitter and MSNBC. But with impeachment as a live issue right now, the left has an opportunity to help cleave this core, mobilized segment of the Democratic base from the party leadership.
It’s not shocking that the left has yet to take advantage of this opportunity. The Resistance is made up largely of college-educated, suburban women ranging in age from 30 to 70. This means The Resistance is geographically and demographically isolated from the growing left, particularly the organizing of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign. The latter two have been largely defined by millennial and increasingly Gen Z organizers and activists in cities.
But even if we could overcome this geographic and demographic barrier, many socialists see little reason to attempt to appeal to organizers of The Resistance. The Resistance is not made up of strategically key industrial workers or the U.S.’s urban racial underclass — the two historic targets of left-wing organizing.
The Resistance is also overwhelmingly partisan, which means its organizers are responsive to leadership from many quarters. While the Women’s March has prominent leaders who are socialists and radical activists, shameless hucksters and conspiracists do also hold substantial sway. Unlike “Berniecrats,” activists in The Resistance are not primed to assume that the Democratic Party leadership is corrupt or dishonest. Many of them may have deep reservations about Sanders for not being a member of the Democratic Party, and for the perception that he weakened Clinton’s campaign in the 2016 election. Although they are largely people who would benefit enormously from Sanders’s proposals for single-payer health care, free public education and an expanded social safety net, they are currently motivated by revulsion at Trump, not an ambitious working-class policy agenda. They certainly aren’t prime recruits to become a socialist cadre any time soon, and we shouldn’t pretend that they are.
But in the immortal words of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” The participants in The Resistance may not be the ideal working-class subject that socialists wish to call into existence, but their movement played a decisive role in the 2018 midterms and will be essential to ousting the far right from power in 2020. This could easily be the base of mobilized party activists who crush the “political revolution” in the name of party unity, or, if they are polarized against the Democratic political elites, they could be a major well of support for democratic socialist candidates in the future.
But by taking up the mantle of impeachment (as Shahid Buttar, Pelosi’s socialist primary challenger has), socialists have the opportunity to seize the initiative from the Democratic leadership, and contribute to the further mobilization, politicization and self-organization of a large portion of the Democratic Party base.
The Left’s Approach to Impeachment
The best argument against impeachment — that voters are more concerned with bread-and-butter issues than with the potential political theater of an impeachment proceeding — assumes that the process of impeachment cannot be framed around socialist or progressive issues. This perspective made sense in the pre-Robert Mueller report era, when the investigation of Trump was in the hands of the Department of Justice rather than Congress. Now that the Mueller report is complete, however, the left flank of Congress has an opportunity to re-frame Mueller’s narrow prosecutorial focus, and to look at Trump’s crimes from a class-based perspective that not only lays a foundation to impeach, but also lays out how, by committing the very same crimes (i.e. foreign corrupt practices, wage theft, money laundering, tax evasion) his economic class is responsible for the broad immiseration of the poor and working class.
There are certainly bad arguments for impeachment. Sen. Elizabeth Warren argues that we should “set aside political considerations” and impeach Trump for “disloyal behavior.” This approach is not only an anachronistic and moralistic appeal to the utterly discredited notion of bipartisanship, but also has no prospects for providing material benefit to everyday Americans. Other liberals are trying to rehabilitate the Mueller report with further appeals to some imagined, heroic intervention of law enforcement, clinging to a recent open letter from more than 500 former federal prosecutors who believe Trump committed felonies.
If Pelosi were conducting an impeachment drive based on xenophobic, anti-Russia conspiracy theories, it would indeed be a challenging dynamic for the left. We would be forced to distance ourselves from illogical and, in many cases, offensive arguments, as we have for the last two years, without allowing the party leadership to characterize us as Trump defenders. But, since Pelosi has chosen to wholly abrogate her duty (just as she did with the Bush administration from 2006-2008), we face no such dilemma.
There should be no question that, if the left was in power, we would use every tool at our disposal to oust the far right and push our agenda up to and including impeachment. Trump is the CEO, real estate developer, oligarch president; impeaching him should be seen as a mechanism for impeaching the economic class he represents because his crimes are those his class has long been able to commit with impunity. Impeaching Trump on these bases would achieve the dual purpose of holding him accountable while building toward broader structural change.
Representative Tlaib herself has laid out an even broader set of issues to investigate and impeach Trump over, including the pardoning of former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the Muslim ban and his failure to produce tax returns.
A confident, organized left can seize the initiative, put aside the Russia investigation, and make a wide-ranging push for impeachment based on investigations of Trump and the oligarchs and war criminals who have captured the government and brought Trump to power. The groups that laid the groundwork for a Sanders run in 2015, from the Working Families Party to the DSA to Democracy for America, should launch such a campaign now. We should demand that every Democrat in Congress sign on and mobilize with organizers of The Resistance to primary challenge any Democrats who stand in the way.
Impeachment Is Part of Broader Systemic Change
Socialists should also be unambiguous that impeachment is about building and realigning power away from the executive branch. Exerting pressure on popular issues from the seats of Congress is how we structurally shift the balance of powers between the branches of government. The House of Representatives is known as “the People’s House” for good reason; it is by design the most democratically accountable body within the federal government. As such, it is tasked with some of the most significant checks on executive power: the ability to declare war and the power of impeachment.
The war power has been all but abandoned until very recently (due to bold action by progressive Rep. Ro Khanna and Senator Sanders) and the impeachment power, since Watergate, has been the sole purview of the right due to congressional Democrats’ “pragmatic” aversion to conflict. The GOP was willing to impeach former President Bill Clinton for politically inconsequential personal behavior while Democrats were unwilling or unable to impeach George W. Bush and Dick Cheney for world historical crimes against humanity.
Impeachment gives us the opportunity to show we have the courage of our convictions and make the case that we would use every lever at our disposal to bring a modicum of accountability to Washington. Impeachment should stand alongside such issues as expanding the Supreme Court, D.C. statehood, ending the filibuster and mass (re)enfranchisement as a key part of a democracy agenda. There is a movement of millions of activists clamoring for just this type of assault on the Trump administration.
A left-led national campaign for impeachment can contribute to mobilizing the Democratic base, which is essential to defeating Trump and the Republican Party. It can provide a powerful wedge to split that base from the 1-percenter leadership of the Democratic Party on exactly the lines — partisanship — that have most powerfully shaped the development of The Resistance. Lastly, it can popularize a critique of the reactionary right that goes far beyond horror at Trump, and instead gets to the heart of the deeply racist, plutocratic and dysfunctional institutions that allowed for Trump’s ascendance.
If we are looking for a slogan, we can do worse than the one provided by Representative Tlaib: “We’re going to impeach the motherfucker.”