A Critical Inflection Point

We find ourselves, as a nation, at one of those rare moments in history where the very future of our country hangs in the balance. As Yogi Berra famously remarked, ‘When you come to a fork in the road, take it.’ We’re at that fork and we’re about to select a direction. My money is on us — where ‘us’ are all U.S. senators — choosing a path that may forever change the manner in which our government and, in turn, our society operates. For we’re about to choose whether we will continue to have a government of three co-equal branches, especially the concept of equality between the Executive branch, led by the president, and the Legislative branch, comprised of Congress. The other choice: that of a monarchy, one in which the president is entitled and empowered to act in any way he or she pleases, with no need to respond to or honor the laws of the land or the precedents and rules of the elected members of the House and the Senate. It’s one or the other and the choice is about to be made by 100 senators. Whether they admit to the gravity of what awaits them or not.

It’s quite a fork in the road. We’ve approached other forks before, of course, and somehow survived them. The Civil War, the end of slavery, women’s suffrage, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, McCarthyism, school integration, the lies that took us to and kept us in Vietnam, Watergate, 9/11, the deceit of weapons of mass destruction used to justify the war in Iraq and the deaths of thousands of Americans, some would argue the Obama presidency, gay marriage, and, now, the impeachment of the president. Unfortunately, the last one may hold the most power to undermine our nation.

The smart money — hell, everyone’s money — is on the Senate acquitting the president on both impeachment counts, that of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Some senators may believe the president is truly innocent, having never abused the power of his office by using the withholding of taxpayer money to coerce a foreign government to undermine the candidacy of an opponent. Others may believe that even if he did as described last week by House Managers in the Senate trial, those actions do not rise to the level of impeachable behavior of ‘high crimes and misdemeanors,’ as stated in the Constitution. Still other senators may simply be motivated to avoid taking a stand altogether and position themselves for reelection in their home state by supporting the president. We’ll likely know the outcome by the end of the week. But know this: the newsies on the steps outside Congress only have only one pile of newspapers ready to sell. Its headline: ACQUITTAL!

Here’s a good secondary bet that’s certain to pay: the verdict will be rendered without the Senate allowing witnesses or germane documents being produced by the administration. Yes, a trial without subpoenaed witnesses and documents, with an emphasis on without subpoenaed witnesses and documents. What would Clarence Darrow and any former or current Supreme Court justice think if subpoenas issued by Congress were ignored? They might argue that it’s borderline malpractice not to allow evidence to be presented. They’d also probably observe that our system of jurisprudence had been irreparably damaged and that our government was teetering on the brink. It certainly gives ‘Just Say No’ an entirely new and decidely ugly meaning.

And therein lies the rub. That verdict, especially if rendered without the benefit of witnesses and evidence, will have serious, long-term implications for the nation. Here are some:

  • This president and all future presidents will be allowed to operate as they see fit, with no concern for the parameters of the law or the Constitution to which the rest of us are bound.
  • Congress will be powerless to subpoena anyone in the administration and unable to gain possession of official documents in what had been their Constitution-mandated role as overseer of the Executive branch. Indeed, its role as overseer will end.
  • The Constitutionally-mandated three equal branches of government — Executive, Legislative, Judicial — will be toast. The Executive branch will have supreme power, as it not only will have the power to ignore Congress but will also have near-unfettered power to appoint judges. Not unlike that of a king.
  • Foreign leaders relying on support from the United States, whether it be financial, military and/or political, will undoubtedly be subject to coercion should the president believe that leader and/or her or his country holds something of personal value desired by the president, his party, or his family. Quid pro quo, perhaps on a personal, self-serving level, will be the new normal.
  • Facts won’t matter. ‘Truth’ will be — as it is now — whatever the president and administration say it to be.
  • The hopes for a transparent government will die, given that the administration will be under no obligation to share anything. Like now.
  • The future of elections will forever change. It is not inconceivable that gerrymandering and voter suppression efforts will accelerate and become even more blatant, given that a president will need the support of a Congress with a same-party majority to operate lawlessly.

In short, power will be vectoring toward absolute, with only the Judiciary potentially standing in the way. Checks and balances will weaken. The concept of ‘being above the law’ will change to ‘how far above the law?’ One could make a compelling case that this will mark the beginning of the end of democracy and our country’s place in the world as we know it.

That said, this can all be avoided, or at very least, mitigated, if the Senate votes to allow witnesses and the gathering of subpoenaed documents. Stated more plainly: some hope can be restored if the Senate actually conducts an impeachment trial, as the Constitution directs. If so — and it’s a massive ‘if’ — let the chips fall where they may.

But assuming this does not occur and that these dire predictions have merit, it is entirely possible that this fork in the road, this inflection point, poses dangers that we will have enormous difficulty overcoming. For this is not some pothole, some pit. This is an abyss. One that will change our nation forever. I’ve written before about the state of our society being like a train wreck, one unfolding in slow motion, as divisiveness took hold, civility eroded and we were forced into opposing camps. If those were our only issues! In stark contrast, the impending decision to condone behavior antithetical to the Constitution — especially the unwillingness to honor subpoenas — marks a significant turning point in our history, potentially inflicting a severe wound to our way of life, one that may never heal. The Senate will have formally turned away from the Constitution, away from law, away from checks and balances, away from our system of justice, away from the very foundation of our democracy and chosen, instead, to validate rogue behavior in the Executive branch. This is what hangs in the balance. It will be decided most likely later this week. The 116th Congress is at the fork and 100 senators will choose our fate. We can only hope they choose very wisely. My bet is that they won’t.

See you on the other side.

Alan is a consulting psychologist with a long and storied history of helping organizations of all sizes become more enriching, empowering places to work.

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