Democracy Disappears

by Eric Alterman

The Nation magazine, January 11/18, 1999


To hell with Bill Clinton. He is no longer the issue. What is at stake in this impeachment fight is the ability of an extremist minority to debase the Constitution and destroy its protections. Through their complicity in this travesty, the Republican leadership, the mainstream media, the Washington establishment and their self-deluded apologists on the left-in the face of the consistently voiced opposition of a massive majority of American citizens-demonstrate contempt for the fundamental precepts of both democratic and republican rule.

Spare me the sanctimonious invocation of 'principle." Republicans, with their popularity at its lowest ebb in fourteen years, may be committing political seppuku, but this is hardly because "they have pledged allegiance to the republican principle," as George Will idiotically pretends. The impeachment of the President was ordered and executed in the office of majority whip Tom DeLay, where the GOP's money men and Christian soldiers converge to form an implacable bloc. Those Republicans who dare to buck "The Hammer"-a man who compares EPA regulators to Gestapo agents-risk inviting a right-wing primary challenge with no help from the national party. Without countervailing power, the moderates have no means to defend themselves. (This explains the cowardly flip-flop of the four who voted for impeachment only to call for censure barely forty-eight hours later.)

The Republican right-wingers are so busy fighting their holy war against the sixties they never noticed their putative enemy's capitulation. What was Bill Clinton's eulogy of Richard Nixon but a sellout of every antiwar protester he was said to represent? What was Hillary's career as a corporate lawyer and commodities trader but an endorsement of the very values that "the sixties" were supposed to question? The Clintons long ago jettisoned whatever principles survived their tenure in the Arkansas governor's mansion. Clinton may be a man of generous instincts and frequent political genius, but his fealty to the constitutional strictures of his office is considerably less than one would hope. He began the air war against Iraq on December 16 without even the pretense of Congressional consultation, much less national dialogue or debate. The public supports the war, of course: Once the bombs begin to fall, Americans support every war, believing it unpatriotic to do otherwise.

That does not change the fact that no one in the Administration can explain, in plain English, exactly what good this extensive and expensive attack ultimately will achieve. Iraq's ability to deploy "weapons of mass destruction" is indeed scary. But its hateful regime will be no less capable of doing so following the bombings. US generals do not even pretend to know how to locate the most dangerous parts of Iraq's arsenal and wisely refrain from targeting chemical weapons factories because a successful hit could release their deadly compounds into the atmosphere. Yes, we are being "diddled" by a dictator. But the only people likely to suffer from our response are the people he has already victimized. Predictably, the Arab world is incensed,

Saddam Hussein's prestige increased and the West and Russia profoundly split. The last time the Administration tried to restart this war it was humiliated by a tough-minded audience at Ohio State University. This time they knew better than to give real people a chance to ask unscripted questions.

Where is the democracy in our democracy? A Democratic President commits an act of war without the pretense of democratic debate. A lame-duck Republican majority, refusing to allow even a vote on the one alternative that Americans insist they want-censure-attempts to remove a popular President without even a fig leaf of bipartisan support. This occurs in the wake of a midterm election in which the pro-impeachment side is roundly defeated and while the President in question enjoys an approval rating of more than 70 percent.

Where are the media in this pathetic spectacle? Where they have been since day one: cheering the military and stoking the scandal's most hysterical elements. Aware that they do not have the votes to win a trial in the Senate, Republicans used the impeachment debate (and Bob Livingston's resignation as Speaker-elect to create the illusion of a groundswell for the President's resignation. Network pundits, absent a scintilla of evidence, played Nostradamus. Cokie Roberts predicted hopefully that the cries for Clinton's resignation would soon become "deafening." Her ABC News colleagues, William Bennett and William Kristol, seconded her anti-Clinton emotion. Robert Bork repeated it on NBC, as did David Gergen on PBS. In between touchdowns on CBS, Dan Rather reported that resignation calls were coming from "Republicans and others." Since Roberts and Gergen are probably registered independent, this statement is technically true, but substantively meaningless.

The President's antidemocratic act of war is consistent with the behavior of all postwar Presidents. Bringing democratic control to the conduct of foreign policy requires a struggle merely to force the issue onto the public agenda (see my book Who Speaks for America?). This is not true, obviously, of the Republicans' constitutional coup. While they are unlikely to oust Clinton from power, they have already succeeded in crippling our political system. The discourse has been denuded of discussions of healthcare, Social Security, the environment and education. All we have seen and heard about for the past year has been semen-stained dresses and back-room blowjobs, the trivia of sexual inquisition.

Clinton's resignation followed by Al Gore's ascension to the presidency might rupture this dynamic, but the price is far too high. Our political institutions are on the brink of combustion. Elections are ignored and potentially overturned. The right to privacy is eviscerated. The Constitution is shredded. The media amplify and applaud the mad dogs bent on political annihilation.

Whatever one thinks of Bill Clinton, his opponents must be thwarted. They are the enemies of democracy and of the Constitution that insures its possibility. We long ago lost the luxury of choosing our allies. This is war.

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