What We Can Learn From Watergate

What We Can Learn From Watergate

Fifty years ago, we tried to make the presidency more accountable. It wasn’t enough to secure democracy.


Fifty years apart, Watergate and the January 6 investigation stand as bookends for an imperial era—and for a political generation. As the January 6 committee winds up its investigation and the Justice Department delves deeper into the myriad Trump postelection plots, a look back at Watergate and its aftermath provides a sobering reflection on the challenges facing the committee and the country.

Richard Nixon trampled on laws to ensure his reelection in 1972. He and his aides then conspired to cover up what his attorney general, John Mitchell, termed the “White House horrors,” leading to numerous convictions and to Nixon’s forced resignation. Donald Trump trampled on laws and summoned a mob to Washington in the effort to overturn his election defeat. He was impeached by the House and acquitted by the Senate. Hundreds of his followers have been prosecuted for trashing the Capitol. Yet, far from covering up his actions, Trump continues to peddle the Big Lie, spurring Republicans to launch a systematic attack on the electoral process in states across the country.

Watergate demonstrates both the importance and the limits of accountability. The Watergate investigations of a sitting president led not only to Nixon’s resignation but to the prosecution of some 40 government officials—and prison time for many, including Nixon’s chief of staff, White House counsel, domestic affairs director, and attorney general.

To this day, those serving in the White House remain aware that they are not above the law. White House counsel Pat Cipollone warned that “we’re going to get charged with every crime imaginable” if Trump joined the march on the Capitol on January 6. When Trump sought to replace the acting attorney general, Jeffrey Rosen, with a zealot prepared to certify baseless claims about election fraud, the acting deputy attorney general, Richard Donoghue, threatened he would resign and “your entire department of leadership will walk out within hours.” Trump backed down, possibly remembering how Nixon’s “Saturday night massacre”—the firing of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox—kick-started the impeachment process.

Holding Trump and his coconspirators accountable is particularly important in this far more cynical era. The attempt to overturn an election is the ultimate treason in a democracy. Yet the patriotism that many Republicans in Congress exhibited 50 years ago is virtually AWOL today. Seventy percent of Republicans embrace Trump’s fable about a stolen election.

Prosecutions will help unmask Trump’s Big Lie. Moreover, the corrosive belief that the system is rigged for the rich and powerful will only be reinforced if the demonstrators who sacked the Capitol are prosecuted while Trump and his enablers go free.

Fifty years ago, Nixon’s resignation sparked a wave of reforms. Trump’s conspiracies should lead to significant reform as well. What the Watergate era teaches, however, is how difficult it is to strengthen the “guardrails of democracy” in the face of entrenched interests and institutions.

Nixon claimed that national security gave him carte blanche. “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal,” he told David Frost even after he had resigned.

The Watergate revelations led to a concerted effort to reform a lawless state. In 1973, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution over Nixon’s veto, seeking to limit the president’s power to launch wars without congressional approval. Congress established permanent committees to police the intelligence agencies. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) was created. Trump has recently run afoul of a law passed in Watergate’s aftermath to govern the ownership of presidential documents.

But those reforms did not curb America’s overseas misadventures or stem the growth of the security state. Less than a decade later, Ronald Reagan was illegally waging a covert war on Nicaragua. After 9/11, George W. Bush’s Global War on Terrorism gave the security state free rein. Presidents now find it easier to start wars than to end them. Barack Obama established a global assassination operation out of the White House, joking with aides that he was “really good at killing people.” Torture, rendition, and the Guantánamo abominations were rationalized. The National Security Agency invoked presidential prerogative to defend the massive surveillance of Americans. Obama’s Justice Department used the Espionage Act, a relic of the 1917 Red Scare, more than all previous presidents combined to prosecute whistleblowers for publishing information the administration did not want citizens to know. The FISC—packed with the most conservative justices on the bench—has proved merely a rubber stamp for the security agencies.

Watergate also exposed the sordid world of campaign finance. In 1974, Congress strengthened the Federal Election Campaign Act to cap how much money any one person could contribute to a campaign, limit how much candidates could spend, create partial public funding for presidential campaigns, and strengthen the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to enforce these limits.

But while Congress was moving to clean up money and politics, the corporate world was mobilizing. Right-wing think tanks proliferated; sinecures for conservative economists were funded; the campaign to train and recruit right-wing activist judges began; and big money flooded into lobbying and elections. By 1976, corporate political spending exceeded that of labor unions. By 2011, there were 23 lobbyists employed for every member of Congress.

The FEC today is utterly dysfunctional—and the scandal is what is legal. In a series of cases culminating in Citizens United, activist right-wing judges on the Supreme Court ruled that money is speech and banned limits on corporate or other group political spending. Republicans filibuster federal reforms. Big money dominates our politics, much of it from undisclosed donors. Recently groups like AIPAC have erected front groups to funnel millions in secret contributions—often from right-wing donors­—targeting progressives in Democratic primaries.

Watergate also accelerated the transformation of both major parties. Initially, Democrats reaped dramatic gains, with 75 new members of Congress elected in the 1974 midterms. Many coming from suburban districts scorned the party’s New Deal coalition as out-of-date. Dubbed Atari Democrats, they touted technology, financial deregulation, corporate globalization, and free trade, and they dismissed labor as a “special interest.”

Although Nixon left in disgrace, Republicans doubled down on his “Southern strategy” to supplant Democrats in the South and on nativist fearmongering, particularly after 9/11, to consolidate support among the white working class. Meanwhile, antiabortion evangelicals and conservative Catholics, gun nuts, and neoconservative interventionists formed the coalition of the discontented.

Nixon left office with the economy plunging into the worst recession since the Great Depression. The right then used stagflation—the combination of high unemployment and soaring prices, triggered in part by OPEC’s raising the price of oil—to discredit activist government and organized labor. The stage was set for a conservative era inaugurated by Reagan’s election and then extended under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

The results of that era are now clear. Bipartisan neoliberalism championed policies that shipped good jobs abroad, devastated Middle America, fattened Wall Street, starved public investment, and generated the greatest inequality in the industrialized world. That paved the way for Trump.

The January 6 committee has focused renewed attention on what Representative Liz Cheney condemned as the “most serious misconduct of any president in the history of our nation.” Trump’s efforts to overturn his presidential election defeat, Representative Jamie Raskin noted, “make the Watergate break-in look like the work of Cub Scouts.” The committee’s report will no doubt detail Trump’s actions and hopefully result in criminal referrals to the Justice Department.

Bipartisan legislation to protect presidential election results from sabotage is also moving forward. However, efforts to expose dark money, make registration and voting easier, curb gerrymandering, and encourage small donations must still overcome Republican resistance and the Senate filibuster. The Republican strategy of packing zealots into election administration—from precinct volunteers to secretaries of state—will have to be fought state by state. Constitutional amendments will be needed to curb the role of big money and to abolish the Electoral College.

If Watergate teaches us anything, however, securing our democracy will require much more. While Trump must be held accountable, he is a symptom of our democratic decline, not its cause. Democracy can’t survive if it doesn’t reflect the will of the people. Plutocracy poses a far greater threat than Trump’s bumptious populism. Big money skews elections and corrupts officials. Entrenched lobbies serve private interests, not the common good. Racism still divides. A security state above the law polices the world, while American lives grow shorter and more brutish. The prosecution of Trump would be salutary—but not sufficient. Reforms to bolster democratic elections are clearly needed, but they’re no panacea. The guardrails won’t hold if the entire train is off the track.

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