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How Civil Rights History Can Guide Democrats in Impeachment Decision

Democrats are clearly divided on the issue of initiating an impeachment process against President Donald Trump.

At last count, fifty-one House Democrats and one maverick Republican, Michigan’s Justin Amash, favored moving forward with impeachment.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi tried to focus the media’s attention on the other 187 Democrats still proceeding cautiously.

Hesitations persist among Democrats, despite the indisputable evidence that Trump put his own narrow self-interests and those of foreign powers ahead of the nation’s by taking actions to obstruct an investigation into Russia’s effort to interfere in the 2016 Presidential election and subvert U.S. democracy.

What are these hesitations?

Some fear pursuing impeachment will only help Trump by energizing his base, especially since the effort would seem doomed to die in the Republican-led Senate.

Others, such as Jerry Nadler, argue that pursuing impeachment requires the support of the American people. “Impeachment is a political act, and you cannot impeach a president if the American people will not support it,” Nadler opined in a recent radio interview.

Nadler’s position raises some thorny issues inherent in the concept of a representative democracy and in the ideal of a government by, of, and for the people.

Are our representatives simply supposed to advocate the will of their constituents? Is that what representation means?

This issue surfaced at Amash’s recent town hall meeting in Grand Rapids, Michigan, when a constituent accused him of not doing his duty as their representative: “You have spent the last two years failing to do your job, which is to directly represent the popular will of your constituents.”

Amash responded by articulating a competing understanding of his representational duty: “My job is to uphold the Constitution.”

So, which is it? Are members of Congress supposed to represent the “popular will” of the American people, or the Constitution?

The history of civil rights in the United States might provide some guidance here.

In 1957 and 1960, Congress enacted Civil Rights Acts designed to protect the right to vote, especially for African Americans facing discrimination and, frankly racial terror and violence, in their attempts both to vote and to register to vote.

Of course, the Fifteenth Amendment had previously granted voting rights to African Americans, but in 1957 only twenty percent of African Americans in the South eligible to vote were actually registered because of the combination of discriminatory practices in the registration process, such as poll taxes and literacy tests, and the threatening environment of racial terror.

1957 also witnessed Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus calling in the state National Guard to prevent nine African American students from attending high school in Little Rock. President Eisenhower had to call in federal troops so the now-famous Little Rock Nine could attend Central High School under armed guard.

Faubus, of course, acted in defiance of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

This brief example from U.S. civil rights history underscores that the obligation of Congressional representatives is to enforce the law, enact legislation, and uphold the Constitution.

It also shows us, importantly, that in enacting legislation and fulfilling its obligations, the representative role of the legislative branch is not simply to enact or advocate for the popular will of the people.

When it comes to civil rights, in fact, these episodes illustrate the often-articulated understanding that Congressional legislative action needed to move ahead of popular will to advance the nation’s ideals and uphold the Constitution.

Civil rights history teaches us that legislative action is not or need not be directly linked to popular will. In fact, such a direct link, history shows, threatens democracy, as when the popular will wants to deny citizens the right to vote or the right to equal access to public education.

So, does it make sense to say “you cannot impeach a president if the American people will not support it”?

The larger issue involved in a proposed Trump impeachment is, of course, the threat his governing poses to our national security and well-being.

Should our representatives wait to do all that they can to address the threat Trump poses to the nation until the popular will has processed the evidence investigations have uncovered making clear Trump’s bad and endangering behaviors?

The Mueller report detailed ways Trump obstructed efforts to investigate the extent to which Russia interfered in the 2016 election, arguably swaying the results and elevating the worry that Trump is therefore compromised such that his governing decisions are also influenced by Russia.

The report called this interference, of course, “sweeping and systematic,” emphasizing the threat Russia poses to our democracy and Trump’s desire to prevent the truth of this ongoing threat from coming to light.

And, as I’ve written about elsewhere, Trump’s penchant for serving foreign powers is not limited to Russia, and his pattern of endangering the country to serve his own narrow economic self-interest is well-documented.

The invocation of America’s civil rights history here is not by accident. African Americans are among the most vociferous voting bloc supporting the initiation of impeachment proceedings. Certainly, Trump’s assaults on women and people of color are beyond obvious. And we know Russia’s use of social media during the 2016 election was geared toward sowing racial and social discord and division, riling the prejudices that threaten to undermine civil rights and to destabilize our nation, which is Russia’s objective.

Overall, the reality of the “sweeping and systematic” interference by Russia and Trump’s attempt to hide, as well as his refusal to address it, makes us question whose interests he serves when making governing decisions.

As our farmers go bankrupt in record numbers because of the trade war he initiated with China, we have to question if he is serving the national interest, or if he is involved in pushing policies wanted by other nations, as we’ve seen him do.

We need to know, and the nation’s knowing depends on Congress taking the lead, not waiting for the people’s will to catch up.

History shows that’s not how we realize our ideals and uphold the Constitution.

Tim Libretti

Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman's Press Association.

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