Cries for impeachment have echoed across the country since the day Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States of America. Admittedly, a lot of these cries arose before any accusations of collusion, obstruction of justice, etc.. surfaced, and were rooted rather in partisan dislike of Trump himself. As the Mueller investigation came to a conclusion, it wasn’t unlikely the President and his administration could be facing some serious charges, charges which would have been definite grounds for impeachment. The thing is, though, high ranking Democrats including the likes of Nancy Pelosi claimed that impeachment may just “not be worth it” as there aren’t enough votes to remove Trump from office. The concern really isn’t that it would be a waste of valuable congressional time though; it’s a concern that a failure to impeach Trump would be an embarrassment to the Democrats and weaken the party, and because of the polarized political climate, would be even more of an embarrassment than the Republican failure to impeach Clinton in 1998. In terms of party protection, this is valid thinking. But in terms of protecting American democracy from backsliding, it’s downright dangerous. And even though the Mueller report arguably exonerated the President of grounds for impeachment, it’s still important to consider the implications of what could have been.
Before we talk about the implications of a refusal to impeach Trump (if there were grounds for impeachment), we need to talk about the root of this hesitation on behalf of Democrats to pursue impeachment. First of all, it seems today in America, parties and party loyalty are more important than the issues at hand. We focus a lot on how the Republican party and its base of support has changed since the golden days of conservatism in America, but we forget that (especially since the election of Trump), the Democratic party and its base has changed; they’ve moved further to the left. New representatives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who took office after winning election in the midterms after Trump’s inauguration continue to push the party closer and closer to democratic socialism (see the Green New Deal). And there’s a lot of resistance from party elites in order to stay moderate. The Democratic Party is as divided as the Republican Party is unified over Trump. So this hesitation to pursue the impeachment can be seen as a last ditch effort to be seen as moderate, and attract a wider base of support. An effort to maintain moderation and combat polarization within Congress and within the party by Democrat elites.
Polarization is never a good thing for a democracy, so any effort to combat it can be seen as a plus, right? Well maybe not in this case.
In their book, How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt emphasize that erosion of mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance are the two central causes of democratic backsliding. Yes, in a way by trying to combat this polarization, and hesitating to impeach Trump, Democratic party leaders are preserving mutual tolerance. But at the same time, pursing impeachment because strong grounds for impeachment exist isn’t a partisan action. It’s an institutional norm. And by refusing to impeach even though grounds for impeachment exist, party leaders wear away institutional forbearance. And then we start to backslide.
It’s also true that we set a precedent for future presidents that impeachment isn’t an option anymore. Sure, historically, impeachment hasn’t always been successful in terminating a president’s service; Johnson and Clinton were both unsuccessful impeached, and Nixon resigned before he was forced out. But the thing is that without the threat of impeachment, we lose a democratic check on the executive branch of the government. Executive power grows even more consolidated. And the consolidation of executive power doesn’t really spell out “strong democracy”.
Robert Dahl outlines that one of the central tenants of any democracy to be the accountability of the leaders of the nation to the people. Other political scientists like Pippa Norris make similar points. When the leaders of a country are not held accountable for their actions, either in the public opinion, or by lack of institutional repercussions for their actions, executive power is consolidated, and democracy begins to erode. So by not pursuing impeachment (again, only if grounds existed) we not only lessen the accountability of this president to the country but the accountability of future presidents to the country.
So in a way, it really might have been a good thing Trump came out of the Mueller report relatively unscathed. Because the fact is that if he hadn’t, if there were grounds for impeachment, Pelosi and her party would have had a democratic obligation to pursue impeachment. It’s unlikely they would have, and their lack of pursuit could have lead to some major democratic erosion.
*Photo by Unknown “Red and Blue”, Creative
Commons Zero license.