What Do We Do about the Senators Who Voted to Acquit?

Photo by Ludovic Gauthier on Unsplash

We know from the secret ballot on keeping Liz Cheney in her position that many more Republicans believe what Trump did was wrong than are willing to admit it. Doing so would risk their political careers.

I do not believe that Republicans who voted to acquit Trump should remain in office. To the extent that they do, it will affirm the anti-democratic and authoritarian norms that have so badly undermined our democracy in recent years.

But what does this imply for how we should act?

The dominant norm in our political process has for many years been one of combat. We must fight for what we believe in. We must stoke rage toward people such as the Republican Senators who outrageously voted to acquit Trump. We must mobilize our side to fight, fight, fight!

These tactics have worked — to an extent. They have resulted in a huge outpouring of funding. They have mobilized millions to take collective action that got out the vote. They may have galvanized a new generation of political activists.

However, we will not punish our way into the more nurturing society we seek. If we want a society in which every person has the social and material conditions they need to thrive, we need to be models for respect and caring.

Donald Trump got more votes by far than any losing candidate for president — 74,221,000. In fact, he got nearly 5 million more than Obama got in 2008.

Yes, we need to continue to work heroically for huge Progressive turnouts and to overturn all of the policies that have been used to suppress voting. But if we do not entice millions of people in so-called red states to slip off Trump’s anti-democratic bandwagon, we will have limited success in establishing majority support in those states for the principles of democracy.

As much as we would like to make Republican Senators re-election campaigns a referendum on their anti-democratic cowardice, it will not work. Attacking them for their anti-democratic stance effectively attacks all the people who voted for them and for Trump. What do people do when they are attacked? If there is one principle of human behavior that Progressives have most ignored it is the fact that when people are criticized or attacked, they resist; they don’t listen; they get angry and counterattack.

We need to show respect and even empathy for others — even those who have violated norms for democracy. If I were debating one of these Senators, I would acknowledge the difficult situation he (all males) found himself in. “You faced the possibility that you would be defeated in a primary by a Trump supported opponent, just as Senator Lugar of Indiana was defeated in a primary by right wing forces.” I would add that, “I hope that if I had been in your situation, I would have chosen to vote to defend the constitution. But be that as it may, this election is about continuing the progress that Democrats have made since they took control of the Senate.”

To attack and vilify these Senators, as opposed to calmly and respectfully assert a better way of governing, will arouse sympathy from the Trump base. Better that we change the subject; emphasize the concrete things we are doing to address their needs — jobs, cash subsidies, health care, and an end to the pandemic.

I count seventeen Senators who voted to acquit that are up for re-election in 2022. (In at least two other states, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, the Senators are retiring.)

If any of these Senators are defeated, it will be widely reported that their loss was due to their failure to vote for conviction. Thus, removing Senators who voted to acquit will strengthen the norm that our leaders must defend the constitution, even at the risk to their political career. But as a practical matter, we will not defeat these Senators by re-litigating their guilt in failing to defend the constitution. It will depend on defeating efforts to suppress voting and on making a convincing case that we can better serve the interests of the people of these states — something that the Biden administration is well on their way to doing.