Let me start here, with a memory check.
Well, first, here’s one recent historical phenomenon about which I don’t think I have to remind readers: Donald Trump’s long and relentless train of racist and sexist comments, of violations of democratic norms and procedures, of self-serving and anti-democratic abuses of power.
At least I don’t have to remind those readers lambasting the House impeachment managers who decided against calling witnesses in the trial after they had won a vote allowing them to, joined by a handful of Republicans. These readers have their rap sheet on Trump carefully inventoried.
I will ask readers to remember, though, how after nearly every new grotesque infraction, after every new act of political malfeasance and malevolence, after every newly discovered crime, many of us through our disgust nonetheless perked up hopefully, thinking, “Surely this is the straw that breaks the camel’s back, that finishes Trump. Surely Americans cannot tolerate this. Surely they have reached their limit, their tipping point, on indecency and hate.”
I think this emotional dynamic, as described here, will resonate with many readers.
And yet the memory of this dynamic seems short.
At least, this is the impression I get when I hear the flood of media pundits and commentators haranguing the Democratic House impeachment managers for not calling witnesses. MSNBC’s Ari Melber declared that the Democrats “blew it.” Jemele Hill tweeted: “The Democrats sure know how to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.” MSNBC’s Joy Reid and her talking heads Jason Johnson and Tim Miller, on Reid’s show Sunday night, all piled on the Democrats for this weak move. Headlines in Slate and Newsweek characterized the Democrats for “caving in” and “backing down.” The Nation justice correspondent Elie Mystal concluded, “I don’t know how to talk about the Dems failure to call witnesses in a way that won’t get me banned from Twitter. Suffice to say: this is why we fail.”
In the same breath, these critics uniformly praise the case the Democrats did make. It was just insufficient. As Jason Johnson remarked, they needed to do what Republicans do and go for the “jugular vein.”
And here we go again.
If the American people saw just one more witness. If GOP Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler actually appeared in person to testify about the call she overheard between Kevin Mccarthy and Donald Trump, in which Trump expressed sympathy for the rioters while McCarthy desperately pleaded for Trump to call in forces to save their lives. Never mind that her testimony was presented and read into the record, or that her last minute revelation was all over the news. Or, if the American people could just hear Mike Pence testify to what had been made clear a thousand times, that Trump sacrificed him, that he knew Pence’s life was in danger and instead of sending help, he egged on the rioters.
These witnesses, these testimonial re-runs, would be the straws that would break the camel’s back, removing the scales from the eyes of those Americans who have not yet fully and clear seen the horror that is Trump.
Rinse. Dry. Repeat. Been there, done that.
These critiques constitute a failure to understand the primary tactics of persuasion that will work these days with the American people, and they also reveal the extent to which progressives once again have crawled into their bubble of self-righteous political piety and arrogantly ignored all those American voters Republicans manage to corral because progressives refuse to acknowledge their perspectives and truly understand how they think so they can be engaged in conversation.
It should be clear to any observer paying attention that the primary, perhaps only, mode of persuasion left to Democrats is action itself. Words, testimony, images are all, for the most part, so much noise, except perhaps to a sliver of undecided Americans with minds still open to reason, if there are such folk.
Democrats need to make people’s lives better. Period.
The proof will be in the proverbial pudding.
If people have access to quality healthcare and childcare, higher wages, better employment prospects, the protection of unions that improve their working conditions as well as their wages and that give them a voice at work, an improved social safety that gives them a greater sense of security, and so on, then people just might be persuaded.
If they see the government provide relief and assistance during this pandemic and actually act to address the pandemic and save lives, people might begin believe the Republican hatred of government, its project of dismantling it, just might not be serving their interests.
Of course, the words and images here will be important. Democrats will need to announce loudly what they are doing and what the Republicans try to stop them from doing, so the contrast is clear.
Even then, the ideological grips on people’s minds is so powerful, this material persuasion might not work.
But it’s likely the only way. People need—and need to feel—concrete improvements in their lives, greater security.
For Democrats to have prolonged this trial, giving Trump’s lawyers—don’t forget—more time to muddy the waters, obfuscate, lie, and, most importantly, drag on the proceedings so the Senate could not get to other business, the great risk would have been creating the perception, maybe even the reality, that Democrats are mired in their hate of Trump and are not getting on with the agenda of governing and serving the people during this trying and desperate time.
These critics clearly don’t understand where many Americans are. They don’t care about politics. They care about their lives.
Just as progressives in their bubbles pushed for Medicare for all, refusing to recognize how the phrase scared and even repelled many Americans, just dismissing them instead of figuring how to have a conversation with them, so here these critics have again refused to recognize the political reality of where and how many Americans live and think.
The House impeachment managers realized they made their case, and the less would be more. To push on would subject their efforts to the law of diminishing returns, whereas their biggest political return would be to get back to governing and legislating to produce concrete results.
These critics seem to want blood for their own sport. The House impeachment managers were not playing such games. They were actually trying to work for and play to the American people in a time of crisis.
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.