I have a hazy memory of the last time a president faced removal from office. I was in third grade, and my teachers and parents made me feel as if Bill Clinton’s impeachment had nothing to do with me. I couldn’t affect the outcome, and the outcome wouldn’t affect me. At the time, I admit, I was largely preoccupied with obtaining a pair of glitter capris from Limited Too, and figuring out what the big deal was with this so-called “blow job”. But I’m now a 28-year-old writer, and it occurs to me that impeachment is still being presented as a mysterious pageant that the average person can’t even begin to understand.
On Thursday, the House will vote for the first time on the impeachment inquiry, going on record in regard to the rules for public hearings. The decision over what will be revealed to the American public fails to contend with the reality that very few people will feel empowered to form an opinion about that information, and even fewer will have the drive to do anything about it.
But if the American government is going to bother masquerading as a democracy, then the public must be empowered to participate in the political process with the help of our political and media gatekeepers. As it stands, our elected officials are conducting themselves as if their behaviour does not require the consent of the governed, and the standard coverage of their conduct ratifies this as an acceptable reality. Not to go all Schoolhouse Rock on you here: but there will not be a government by and for the people, unless it is driven by our input.
Now, the word “democracy” has become the rhetorical equivalent of a used Band-Aid. Conservative men will likely want to jump in here to insist that, um, actually, America is a “republic.” Except America is neither of those things. As it stands, a small group of people is making the majority of decisions about the wealth and power of this nation – and they’re not even pretending that that we have any input. The oligarchy has never been so obvious as through the lens of impeachment.
Part of the problem is that the conversation about impeachment has been framed as a face-off between two teams by many of the leading figures in mainstream media. Politico regularly issues headlines citing gains for Democrats or Republicans in the House’s inquiry, while The New York Times asserts the unlikeliness of conservative senators voting to impeach, as if it is a matter of fate: “[Impeachment] would require 20 Republicans to side with Democrats in convicting Mr Trump,” the paper of record wrote in a recent article, “and few observers believe that will happen.”
This past weekend, at a Nationals game in Washington DC, the audience booed President Trump when he appeared on screens at the game, with many in the crowd chanting, “Lock him up.” In response to this, Morning Joe host Mika Brzezinski said the crowd shouldn’t have have booed, and expressed concerned over behaviour from “both sides”. “If u want to make your voice heard, vote,” she wrote on Twitter.
It should be obvious that it is possible, and in fact necessary, to raise our voices beyond the ballot box, especially given that the current president lost the popular vote. Political acts beyond voting are a historical piece of democratic culture, no matter who inhabits the Oval Office. Our elected officials should seek to be held accountable to those they represent, and it is the job of the journalist to empower people with the information they need to make our will known. Brzezinski’s insistence that people stop booing is more than a tone-deaf tweet. Her words encapsulate a grander failing of impeachment coverage overall, and the way it denies us the ability to raise our voices as a public.
The most critical sickness in American politics is that we have been kept from the constant civic participation that democracy requires by political and media gatekeepers who perpetuate the idea that politics is a spectator sport. That’s especially obvious with impeachment.
The binary framing of impeachment as some sort of death match between Democrats and Republicans creates a sense of inevitability that is baldly anti-democratic. In my personal opinion, the Republican Party is – in the words of Noam Chomsky – “the most dangerous organisation in human history,” and the Democratic party is mostly a bunch of bureaucrats tending to the status quo like it’s their personal zen garden. But this is not about the appropriate attribution of blame or my own particular ideological leanings. I write this with a bias only towards true democracy. That requires each and every one of us to raise our voices all the time, and I truly do mean that, even if we disagree politically.
One of the most absurd elements of the current impeachment conversation – and there are many – is that we must simply accept the proceedings in Washington as “just the way things are”. The presentation of two sides pushes us to the sidelines, where even the most avid participation is a matter of cheering the loudest for your team. Impeachment is about the integrity of our democracy, and right now the clear loser is the American people. Our congressional representatives are meant to represent us; that means the full scope of their constituents, not just the people who voted for them, and certainly not the agenda of their political party. If our elected officials refuse to enact public will in regard to impeachment, then, they too, need to be removed from office.
We’ve gotten to the point where our elected officials proceed as if they cannot be held accountable in impeachment proceedings, or when it comes to passing policy proposals for the climate crisis, gun reform, and healthcare – issues which the majority of the country believes are in need of solutions. Moneyed interests, gerrymandering, the geographical bias of our electoral process, and voter suppression are among the structural realities that suppress our voices. In spite of these obstacles, our media and political gatekeepers should be working to empower us with the information we need to express ourselves as a citizenry, or rather, that is what they would be doing if they gave a shit about democracy.
If you’re witnessing impeachment for the first time right now, I’ll tell you now the same thing I would tell my third-grade self, even though she was not yet old enough to vote: no matter who you are, politics affects you, and that means you have the right and duty to express your opinion in the political conversation.
It is imperative that everyone feeling rage over impeachment proceedings channel it into action, and not just in November 2020. To be quite clear, Mika isn’t wrong that we should vote. But voting is only the most basic, transactional mode of citizenship.
Raising your voice can mean booing. It can also mean contacting elected officials, donating, or protesting. It can mean volunteering on a campaign, or running for office yourself. In the sense of expressing political opinions, we all need to constantly be raising our voices, not only in a state of emergency, but with the same committed regularity of brushing your teeth. Indeed, democracy is not a thing we have; it is a thing we must do, and all the time.
We love to think we’re free in America, but we won’t be, until we commit to the work of constant citizenship out of a duty to the collective. It is in continually raising our voices that we will achieve the equitable public power we all deserve. Getting the demon sweet out of office is just a bonus.
Lauren Duca is an award-losing and -winning freelance journalist focused on building true democracy through a youth movement of political agency. Her book on this topic, ‘How to Start a Revolution’, is available through Virago in the UK and Simon & Schuster in the US
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