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Republic on Trial | The Nation

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Republic on Trial

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The most astonishing thing about the farcical and disgraceful--but extremely dangerous--impeachment proceedings in Washington is that they are happening at all. The country is at peace. (Even the war that was called "cold" is over.) Prosperity reigns. Most Americans think the country is on what the poll-takers call "the right track." A seemingly contented public has lost interest in politics, and only 36 percent of the eligible voters made it to the polls in the Congressional elections in November. Some writers are even suggesting that this indifference is right and proper. James Glassman of the Washington Post, for example, has suggested that the politicians and news media take politics too seriously, whereas a sagacious public has wisely turned away to more important things--namely, "families and friends...work and finances...religion, art and culture." How, in this atmosphere, can an impeachment trial--the most extreme remedy provided in the Constitution--be taking place? Why, when the country is at peace, is there war in the capital?

About the Author

Jonathan Schell
Jonathan Schell is the Lannan Fellow at The Nation Institute and teaches a course on the nuclear dilemma at...

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Faced with great events, we are inclined to look for great causes. Other impeachment proceedings in American history have satisfied this requirement. They have been expressions of deep historical conflicts. In the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, the issue was the treatment of the South and of its newly liberated black slaves in the aftermath of the Civil War, and the failure to remove him from office heralded the failure for another century to secure their rights. In the impeachment of Richard Nixon, the issue was the Constitution itself, menaced by a presidency grown over-powerful during thirty years of unremitting global struggle with the Soviet Union. What, though, are the historical stakes--if any--in the current impeachment? What is its historical context? What forces have produced the attempt?

I suggest two. One is puritanism. The other is what the writer Niccolo Tucci has called impuritanism. In the long run, these two strange bedfellows cannot cohabit, but in the short run they have combined in a paradoxical unholy alliance to bring us the crisis that so few Americans want.

The puritanism is, of course, the puritanism of the "cultural conservatives," many of them fundamentalist Christians, who now control the Republican Party. We know from history that war and economic catastrophe can drive people to desperation. Is it possible that peace and abundance can do the same? It turns out that they can--at least in the case of a significant minority. As they see it, good times may produce a moral laxity that is as dangerous to society as war and economic depression. The degree of alarm in these quarters can scarcely be overestimated. I first awakened to this mood when I happened to hear a sermon by a visiting preacher at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. At a climactic moment, he shouted, "There is a sewer backed up in your living room--and it is television!" We find the same tone of horror and alarm in Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline, by Robert Bork, the rejected right-wing Supreme Court nominee. He sees "a world disintegrating" under the pressure of the "rough beast of decadence" and soon to be "subjected to a brutal force." For "an enemy within"--namely "modern liberalism"--has almost completed its destruction of "Western civilization." Underlying this liberalism, he thinks, was postwar "affluence," which led to "hedonism." "Totalitarian" modern feminism, radical racial egalitarianism, the brutalization of popular culture, a watering down of religious authority and acceptance of abortion have combined, he believes, under modern liberalism's banner to bring on "the moral chaos that is the end of radical individualism and the tyranny that is the goal of radical egalitarianism"--in short, "a new Dark Ages." Bork ponders whether in the face of this onslaught perhaps the best strategy is merely to preserve "enclaves" of conservative sanity, as some monasteries did in the original Dark Ages; but he concludes instead that what is needed is a "politically sophisticated religious conservatism"--exactly the sort of force we now see in action in the impeachment of Clinton.

In The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals, William Bennett, perhaps the Republican Party's leading social conservative, connects the dots between the slouch toward Gomorrah and the Clinton scandal. Sex, according to his argument, is a moral matter; adultery, in particular, reveals character; character is the bedrock of a President's public as well as his private acts; Clinton's misdeeds reveal both private and public corruption; therefore he should be impeached. Bennett is profoundly discouraged by the consistent failure of a majority of the American public to agree. Its failure shows that its "commitment to long-standing American ideals has been enervated." In other words, the public has become corrupt, and the work of the conservatives is to lead a moral regeneration, beginning with Clinton's removal. This is the agenda that the Republican Party is now proposing in Washington.

In support of the social conservatives, let's note that the idea that republics can be threatened by material abundance has a lineage extending all the way back to Aristotle. The founders of the United States, in particular, regarded "luxury" as a potentially fatal threat to republican virtue. Let's further acknowledge that whether one agrees or disagrees with the social conservatives, they are addressing phenomena that are deep and real. For the United States in the past three decades has undergone a many-sided social transformation that truly deserves the often-abused word revolution. The depth of this social revolution has been somewhat masked by the fact that it has not been accompanied by a political one. On the contrary, even as the revolution was proceeding in society, politics, curiously, was more and more dominated by conservatism. The dissonance between these contrary developments in fact set the stage for the impeachment crisis.

The social revolution contains at least four strands, each of which was not only in itself revolutionary but pathbreakingly so, creating genuinely new things under the sun. The first was the civil rights movement, ending the legalized oppression of African-Americans, which had been prolonged by the failure to remove Andrew Johnson from office more than a century ago. This movement--arguably the greatest achievement of domestic American politics since the American Revolution--marked a victory for the ideas of human rights and tolerance that had global consequences. (Imagine how different--how much worse--the world would be today if its "only superpower" was officially racist.) The second was the sexual revolution, which, among other things, effectively removed the taboo against sex before marriage, ended censorship of movies and opened the way to a tidal wave of explicit sexual expression in the popular culture. The third was the feminist revolution, which, in tandem with the sexual revolution, transformed the marriage contract and opened both the workplace and public life to half of humanity. The fourth was the gay liberation movement--in point of sheer novelty perhaps the most remarkable of them all, since it invites full social and political acceptance of a sexual minority that in most societies and most times has been more or less vigorously repressed. Though each of these revolutions is distinct (and all are unfinished), none can be thoroughly disentangled from the others. Common principles and themes underlie them. Each marks an expansion of human rights and human freedom into new realms of life; each breaks down mechanisms of social control that previously were not much challenged. None seem likely to be reversed anytime soon, with or without the removal of Bill Clinton.

Each of the component movements, moreover, has, like almost all great social movements, come at a cost. This is especially true of the sexual revolution, which is reasonably associated with the rise in divorce rates--from 16 percent of first marriages in 1960 to 40 percent in 1996 (though they have decreased a little recently). When parents are divorced and, in addition, both are in the workplace, the task of bringing up children has obviously been made harder. Those concerned with "family values"--the centerpiece of the social conservative agenda--have solid justification for their concern. And a debate on the benefits and harms of the various forms of social liberation that have occurred in the past thirty years or so is one in which almost any American might have a keen personal interest. It's doubtful, though, whether such a debate can usefully occur in Congress, or in any other part of the political realm, for that matter. For one thing, the problems are mainly social rather than political. For another, the prospect of senatorial candidates lecturing the public on divorce--by definition, the principal unraveler of families--does not have the look of a political winner. Divorce, indeed, is the third rail of family-values politics. (Bork, for example, devotes only a few paragraphs of his 300-page book to the subject, preferring instead his "politically sophisticated" religious conservatism.) Politically speaking, it is much easier to raise tangential issues. An example is the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, which in fact has nothing to say about any existing marriage but instead seeks to obstruct homosexual marriage. Homosexuals have been made the scapegoats of a radical right that is as thoroughly besieged by infidelity and divorce as everyone else.

Herein lies the fatal weakness of impeachment as a weapon of moral reform. There is an interesting and important discussion to be had about the effect of the social revolution upon marriage, divorce and family life, but the impeachment of Bill Clinton affords little opportunity for it. The opportunity shrinks further when the radical right insists that the issue is not sex and lies about sex but perjury. Their hypocrisy, which the public senses, consists not only in hounding Clinton for adulterous sex when they themselves are having it but in pretending that their "outrage" concerns crimes that are public whereas in truth they are concerned about sins that are social or private. When the social conservatives complain of the death of outrage, they forget that, by tricking out their moral agenda in legal clothing, they themselves abandon that moral agenda. "It's not the sex" is a rallying cry unlikely to halt the slouch toward Gomorrah.

The second of the forces that has produced impeachment--impuritanism--runs parallel to the social revolution but has a different origin. This is the almost universal surrender of the news media to sensationalism in pursuit of readership, ratings and profit. The same economic pressures that have led major hotel chains to offer pornographic movies in every room have led "serious" news organizations to serve up the private lives of public people as infotainment. The news media--like both the entertainment media and the advertising media--are a powerful battering ram against the sexual disciplines and prohibitions that the Republican puritans want to restore. In most matters, the social puritans are at war with the media impuritans, whose product is the material in the sewer that the preacher in Lynchburg discovered backing up into his living room. But in the matter of Bill Clinton the two armies march together. The one revels in sexual scandals, the other fumes against them, but both want to rub the public's nose in them.

Anyone who doubts this has only to reflect on the symbiosis of the Republican right in the House of Representatives (the puritans) and Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler, who offered to pay people for information on sexual misbehavior by Representatives (Flynt is the ultimate symbol of the media impuritans), which was put on spectacular display in the resignation of the Speaker-designate Robert Livingston. Once the Republican right signaled that adultery might be a disqualification for high office, the path was open for Flynt. And so when Flynt presented evidence that Speaker-designate Livingston had in fact "strayed" from his marriage, the Republican Zach Wamp and a dozen or so of his colleagues were ready to let Livingston know of their disappointment, and soon he resigned. In a sort of "trial" even more farcical than the one now unfolding in the Senate, Livingston was convicted in a proceeding in which Larry Flynt served as de facto prosecutor and Wamp and his colleagues were the judge and jury. Without Wamp, Flynt would have had no court in which to present his dirt. Without Flynt, Wamp would have had no evidence to present. Thus do the puritans and the impuritans of today cooperate to topple the princes of our realm.

Neither of the two forces, however, is the sort of great cause that might underlie and justify a great event, as once Reconstruction and the cold war underlay and perhaps justified the impeachment efforts of their time. These forces are merely the mechanisms that, in a freakish combination of opposites, have produced an impeachment that is unjustified and never should have occurred.

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