Impeachment won’t heal us — we need a commission on democracy and electoral integrity
It seems less and less likely that the Senate will convict former President Donald Trump for inciting the deadly Capitol riot. Democrats will need the support of 17 Republicans. Only five joined them Tuesday in a key test vote. But even if we have a trial and Trump is somehow convicted, it will not be enough to restore confidence in our government, achieve national unity, or heal the deep scars of the last four years.
The gulf between those who want to “Stop the Steal” and those who want to “Build Back Better” is vast and seemingly unbridgeable. Millions of Americans still believe Trump won the election fair and square, only to have it stolen from him. They believe this in part because many conservative elected officials, activists, and media outlets continue to treat the claim as legitimate, or at least open to doubt.
To make matters worse, if that’s possible, the Republican Party has recently moved in a decidedly authoritarian direction. According to the Varieties of Democracy Institute in Sweden, the U.S. Republican Party in 2018 was more likely to reject political pluralism, demonize its opponents, disrespect the rights of minorities, and encourage political violence than 85 percent of the governing parties in the world’s democracies.
Bipartisanship would be a way forward, except that civility and the facts themselves have become partisan issues, which leaves the available common ground vanishingly small. Our best hope is a full and public process of reconciliation.
The Watergate Hearings provided such a process for two full years of President Richard Nixon’s second term in office. The country was riveted by the televised political drama of a bipartisan congressional committee trying to get to the bottom of what happened during the 1972 election, and whether the president had committed “high crimes and misdemeanors” that warranted his removal from office.
The committee functioned as a truth and reconciliation commission, speaking directly to and for the American people. By the end of the process, not only did a majority of the president’s party think him guilty, so too did a majority of the American public. Nixon resigned and the country left the wounds of Watergate behind, coming together first under Gerald Ford and later under Jimmy Carter.
We must pursue a similar, equally deliberate process of discovery and reconciliation now. A second impeachment trial will not serve this purpose. It is too narrowly focused on whether Trump’s remarks on Jan. 6 incited the insurrection at the Capitol and whether he should be barred under the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment from holding national office.
If we are to heal, we need a National Commission on Democracy and Electoral Integrity, with subpoena power, to investigate the various charges from all sides of the political spectrum about electoral irregularities and voter suppression.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) wanted a commission to investigate Trump’s claims that the presidential election was stolen. There was not enough evidence of fraud to prevent certification of the results, but there is enough concern about those results to warrant hearing folks out. Rudy Giuliani is swearing that if we give him an hour, he can prove that Trump actually won the election. He has so far refused to present the evidence in court. Let’s give him the opportunity to do so on national television, and then be questioned by patient commissioners more concerned with the truth than with sound bites.
But let’s not just hear from Republicans and try to put them on the spot. Let’s also hear from Democratic Party officials and activists who are concerned about systematic voter suppression and gerrymandering. While we are at it, we might spend a few months looking at how to deal with the imbalances of Senatorial and Electoral College representation.
A balanced, bipartisan national commission of respected leaders, who can help the country sort through its passions to find a reasonable path forward, is the appropriate venue for such a process. It could help to deliver the national healing we need and the more perfect union the Framers had in mind.
Michael Merrill is an economist and historian in the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.