How hyper polarization has led to politicians in the United States ignoring their constitutional obligations
Ever since President Trump was elected, there has been talk of impeaching him. “Accusations of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, campaign finance violations and other offenses,” (Baker and Cochrane, 2019) began the moment he stepped into office, and they never went away. Many Americans hoped that the Special Counsel investigation would give indisputable evidence that President Trump is unfit for office and should be impeached. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, and the question of whether or not to impeach the president still doesn’t have a clear answer. In their article “If Not Trump, Then Who? Pelosi Fuels Impeachment Debate with Long Implications,” Peter Baker and Emily Cochrane suggest that the failure to impeach President Trump is evidence of democratic erosion in the United States because of a failure to uphold basic constitutional obligations.
Baker and Cochrane’s article focuses on whether or not the House of Representatives has an obligation to impeach President Trump. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s comment that it is “just not worth it” (Baker and Cochrane, 2019) is one piece of evidence of democratic erosion. Her reason for not impeaching President Trump is that there is no way he would be convicted by the Senate. Ms. Pelosi decided that the Democrats should not impeach the president even before the Special Counsel reports had been released; she had already decided that the best course of action for the Democratic party would be to wait until the next election cycle in order to remove him from office. Her decision reflects the hyperpolarization in the United States because the thought of losing another election is much worse than removing (or at least trying to remove) a populist leader. In addition, the fact that the Democrats do not have any Republican support for impeaching him demonstrates that neither party is willing to cross party lines, even when the president is a clear threat to the democratic system.
Some people may argue that waiting until the next election is one way of trying to save our democracy rather than it being evidence of democratic erosion. However, as Cass R. Sunstein says, “If we have a clear impeachable offense . . . the impeachment process is mandatory because the House of Representatives is an agent of ‘we the people’” (Baker and Cochrane, 2019). He makes it clear that our government has an obligation to keep demogauges out of office, and should one ever rise to power, to remove him or her once she has committed an impeachable offense.
Of course, many people were hoping that the Special Counsel investigation would report evidence of collusion with Russia, and that the House would be able to use that report to impeach and then convict President Trump. Robert Mueller reported the findings of the Special Counsel a week ago, and they didn’t provide what many Americans were hoping for. However, even though he might be clear of those accusations, there are still other accusations that he hasn’t been cleared of yet, including obstruction of justice (during the investigation) and violations of campaign finance laws. An impeachment of President Trump for those alleged offenses would then open an investigation by the Senate to look further into them. Even though it is uncertain of what the Senate would find and how the outcome would affect the Democrats in the next election, the fact that they (and even the House Republicans) are ignoring impeachable offenses in a clear sign of democratic erosion because they are ignoring their constitutional duty.
Another piece of evidence of democratic erosion from Baker and Cochrane’s article is a quote from Representative Juan C. Vargas from California: “. . . that’s what we should do: Follow the Constitution and not politics” (Baker and Cochrane, 2019). His comment is reflective of the opinion of the American people. President Trump was elected by the American people, so they feel that they should be involved and have a say in whether or not the president is impeached.
Before I go on to explain how that attitude is evidence of democratic erosion, I want to point out that attitude isn’t a problem in every democracy. It’s a problem unique to presidential democracies, and the reason for that is the direct election of the president. As Juan Linz explains in “The Perils of Presidentialism,” (Linz 1990)the removal of a president is a much more public event than the removal of a prime minister because a prime minister is not directly elected by the people. In addition, most parliamentary systems do not have as big of a partisan divide as the United States because their system isn’t a winner-take-all system, allowing for a better representation of different parties in their government.
To return to my point, Americans believing that they should have a say in the impeachment of a president is not by itself evidence of democratic erosion (although, in theory people should have trust in the government to do what is right when it comes to removing a leader who threatens the democratic process). What makes Vargas’s comment evidence of democratic erosion is the fact that representatives are actually listening to the people (most of whom truly believe that President Trump has not done anything wrong) instead of following the Constitution and impeaching a president that can be reasonably suspected of breaking many laws.
The failure to follow the Constitution is a major sign of democratic erosion, but it’s cause is the hyperpolarization in the country. As Seymour Martin Lipset mentions in his piece “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy,” cleavages along the social, racial, and ethnic lines in a country are major threats to a democracy. The hyperpolarization that the United States is experiencing is evidence that cleavages have been deepening recently. Unless the two parties can find a way to come together to perform their constitutional obligations, the fate of our country is in trouble.
Baker, Peter, and Emily Cochrane. “If Not Trump, The Who? Pelosi Fuels Impeachment Debate
With Long Implications.” The New York Times. March 13, 2019. Accessed March 28,
Lipset, Seymour Martin. “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and
Political Legitimacy.” The American Political Science Review 53, no. 1 (1959): 69-105.
Linz, Juan J. 1990. “‘The Perils of Presidentialism’ in Journal of Democracy.” Journal of Democracy1 (1): 51–69. http://findit.royalholloway.ac.uk/openurl/44ROY/44ROY_Services_page?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2004&ctx_enc=info:ofi/enc:UTF-8&ctx_tim=2015-09-10T13:54:03IST&url_ver=Z39.88-2004&url_ctx_fmt=infofi/fmt:kev:mtx:ctx&rfr_id=info:sid/primo.exlibrisgroup.com:primo3-Article.
Great article and thank you for starting this discussion! I think the article’s point about the Gallop survey finding that 90 percent of Republicans still approved of Trump helps advance your argument that hyperpolarization may be coming to a place where it is inhibiting the ability of the Constitution to function properly, especially when it comes to the fact that Senate republicans would definitely not vote to impeach in fear of upsetting their core voters. However, I am not completely sold that this issue is only one because of the Trump administration and Pelosi’s decision not to move forward with impeachment. I agree with Representative Vargas’s idea that we should go with the constitution and not politics, but I’m not sure this is a completely realistic stance. Mr. Sustein does state the the House is the agent of the people. However, he is quoted at the end of article saying that “It may be, as a realistic matter, the Senate is going to stick with a president to whom it has a political allegiance.” I agree it is the House’s duty to follow the will of the people, but I think Pelosi is making a smart political decision. This decision is one that I feel will not only play out well for House dems, but hopefully also Senate. As stated, a failed impeachment would give Trump validation and the party a moving platform like Kavanaugh did in the 2018 midterms.
Hi, Sydney! Your article brings up some really interesting cases of where we can see democratic erosion in our political system today. One question that came to my mind while reading your article was about the tension that politicians may face when caught between fulfilling Constitutional duties and acting as per the wishes of their constituents. It seems that this conflict is one between popular sovereignty and fundamental law ( represented by the Constitution), and your article seems to suggest that fundamental law should generally win out over the public opinion. However, it seems that our very governmental system is set up to ever so slightly favor popular sovereignty, or the people’s wishes. For example, the Supreme Court and the judicial branch is very much dependent on the legislative branch for their power, since the Constitution does not explicitly grant the courts a great deal of authority. Instead, the courts must rely on Congress to set of a federal judicial court system and on the executive branch to actually carry out their decisions. So, elected officials who answer more directly to the people, end up having significant power over the judges whose job is to stay more closely aligned to the written law in the Constitution. Moreover, were following the Constitution always the more democratic or correct option, it seems to me that there would not be much need for ways to amend the Constitution. However, given the relatively small number of times the Constitution has been amended since its adoption, you are probably justified in saying that following the Constitution is generally a good indication that one is avoiding obvious democratic erosion.