Impeachment trials are sensationalized events that capture American national attention and media focus. To date, no U.S. president has been removed from office as a result of an impeachment conviction. Such a statistic does not mean that impeachment is an ineffective constitutional tool. However, in the past decade, Republicans and Democrats have increasingly utilized impeachment as an instrument in the partisan war chest. In December 2021, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) warned “when we have a Democratic president and a Republican House, you can expect an impeachment proceeding.”
When impeachment is employed to target presidents on the account of party affiliation, it no longer acts as a constitutional check on executive aggrandizement and instead is devalued, becoming a common expression of partisan attacks. The weakening of legislative restraints on the executive can contribute to democratic erosion at an elite level. Without raising the standards needed to bring impeachment proceedings in the House, frequent impeachments have the potential to erode public trust in political leadership and further amplify party polarization.
One day after Biden’s inauguration, Representative Marjorie Greene (R-GA) sponsored H.Res. 57 to impeach Biden on account of actions he had taken as Vice President. Nine months later, Representative Andy Biggs (R-AZ) introduced legislation to impeach Biden under the rationale that “maybe something like this makes the White House think twice before they do some of this nonsense.” In January 2022, Steve Bannon, a former Trump advisor, declared that the 2022 midterms would be “about one thing: it’s impeaching Joe Biden to stop this madness and to stop this illegitimate regime from destroying our nation.” Senator Cruz noted that “the Democrats crossed that line… [and] decided that this is another tool in the partisan war chest.” As the 2022 midterm cycle approaches, the impeachment of President Biden is likely to be a key platform issue, particularly for the Trump base stinging from the 2017 and 2021 impeachment trials.
The sentiments of these Republican leaders speak to the danger of over-using impeachment as a way to check executive aggrandizement. As explained by political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, “erosion of mutual toleration may motivate politicians to deploy their institutional powers as broadly as they can get away with” . This strategy, known as constitutional hardball, is “aimed at permanently defeating one’s partisan rivals—and not caring whether the democratic game continues” . By straying from the intended purpose of impeachment as a deterrent, as outlined by Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 65, the Republican and Democratic parties damage the capacity of impeachment to act as a check on executive power expansions, done via stealth authoritarianism mechanisms or more blatantly.
This is not to say that the overuse of impeachment is a direct cause of democratic erosion. As Representative Gibbs stated, impeachment is designed to hold leadership “accountable for their actions.” And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is correct in pointing out that “what [the Democrats] have started cannot be easily undone,” as this misuse is not the fault of one party. An impeachment is a productive tool when applied sparingly: it can help preserve democracies by “terminating the tenures of misbehaving presidents” and limiting the “rigidity of fixed terms.” Republican impeachment of Joe Biden may be justified: for instance, many voters believe that Biden has failed to protect American citizens as the COVID-19 epidemic continues to plague the United States. However, if these impeachment proceedings are indeed motivated by a desire for Republican revenge, these impeachments are opportunistic rather than patriotic.
This attempt to gain party power through impeachments is indicative of the need for restraints on overzealous impeachment seekers. Sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset notes that “if loss of office is seen as meaning serious loss for major power groups,” then these groups will take “more drastic measures in seeking to retain or secure office” . As executive power has steadily expanded since the Civil War, the more a party’s presidential victory matters to the party’s ability to implement their agenda. There is no longer any prioritization of teamsmanship, argues political scientist Robert Lieberman, because “mutual respect across party lines within the legislature” has declined . Consequently, politicians are willing to employ almost every tool in their constitutional arsenal to defeat the opposition and consolidate their power.
Only when legislators employ impeachment infrequently and justify it with clear evidence, readily available to the American electorate, will impeachment remain an effective check on executive aggrandizement. While sponsoring articles of impeachment frequently, whenever a president appears to step out of line, may seem like a useful deterrent measure to remind the executive of his responsibility to the legislature and voters, doing so ultimately diminishes the threat of impeachment. When threats of impeachment are frequent, a president will no longer take each as seriously as he should, thus harming Congress’ ability to counteract a dangerous president hoping to establish himself as an autocrat or expand executive powers. Only by holding impeachment seekers accountable and using impeachment as a tool when absolutely necessary, will this power be removed from the partisan battleground and remain a powerful constitutional tool. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Broadway Books, 2019), 112.  Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Broadway Books, 2019), 109.  Seymour Martin Lipset, “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy,” The American Political Science Review 53, no. 1 (March 1959): 84, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1951731.  Robert C. Lieberman et al., “The Trump Presidency and American Democracy: A Historical and Comparative Analysis,” Perspectives on Politics 17, no. 2 (June 2019): 6, https://doi.org/10.1017/S1537592718003286.