The tides are turning on impeachment. On September 20. 2019, news broke that President Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden’s son. This probe could impede Biden’s performance should he face Trump in the 2020 election. On September 24, Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry of President Trump, accusing him of betraying his oath of office and the integrity of our elections. On September 25, the White House released a memo on Trump’s phone call with Zelensky. The next day brought the whistleblower complaint. In the meantime, new allegations are still emerging.
Amidst this whirlwind, the public opinion on impeachment has markedly changed. Most early polls after news about the Zelensky call broke showed rising support for impeachment, and a poll released on Sunday revealed that most Americans now support the impeachment inquiry.
But David Brooks, an opinion columnist for the New York Times, is unmoved. In an op-ed, Brooks argues that although Trump is guilty of impeachable conduct, Democrats should not take the bait. According to Brooks, impeachment is “completely elitist,” amounting to a congressional hijack of the power to select the president – a power that should be reserved to the American people. Brooks argues that the 2020 presidential race “can save the country,” while “an inside-the-Beltway political brawl will not.” The upcoming election, not impeachment, “is what democracy is supposed to look like.”
I don’t buy it. Brooks makes a substantial allegation: impeaching Trump in an election year is undemocratic. In refuting this claim, I accept Brooks’ premise that Trump committed at least some offense worthy of impeachment. By accepting the premise, I sidestep concerns over impeachment as a gratuitous partisan weapon; like any constitutional power, impeachment can be abused, but conceding that Trump committed an impeachable offense means conceding that these impeachment proceedings are legitimate.
Impeachment preserves a system of consent. Like much of democracy, impeachment is about consent. When we elect a president, we consent to be governed by him. But that consent is qualified. We vest the president with authority within the limits of the constitution, on the condition that he uphold the oath of office. When the president substantially violates that oath of office, he breaches the agreement, and the consent we gave him in the election expires. If he is not held accountable and made to answer for his conduct, his power is no longer vested by the people – it is coercive.
Brooks names a number of reasons not to impeach a president one year out from an election. But his reasoning leads to an undemocratic conclusion: to not impeach a president who egregiously contravenes his oath is either to permit him to rule over us without our consent, or to say that when we elect a president, we consent to his unlimited authority. Assuming at least some of the allegations against Trump are true, as Brooks believes, Trump has breached the people’s consent, and his continued power lacks democratic legitimacy.
Elections are only one manifestation of democracy. Elections are the foundation of democracy – a necessary condition for any republican government. But they are not synonymous with democracy. Brooks falls for the fallacy of “electoralism,” or “the faith that merely holding elections will channel political action into peaceful contests among elites and accord public legitimacy to the winners.” In reality, democracy does not just occur intermittently at elections – it manifests through a continuous relationship between the leaders in power and the people they govern. Because most citizens do not participate consistently during the period between elections, we rely on democratic institutions to preserve our democracy.
Democratic institutions preserve democracy though transparency and accountability. Without transparency, we cannot know or evaluate how our leaders are using the powers delegated to them – they represent us in name only. Without accountability for elected officials, we rely on the government to constrain itself. This reliance runs the risk of permitting a corrupt or oppressive state and is contrary to the foundational system of accountability our framers conceived – that of checks between branches and levels of government.
Impeachment could help restore transparency and accountability to our democracy in a way that an election could not. First, impeachment shines a light on executive activity, expanding Congress’s investigative authority and educating the public on executive branch activity, making for a more informed electorate. In contrast, elections might not save us from a nontransparent executive branch because opacity in government renders voters uninformed and electoral outcomes tainted by falsity. Second, impeachment serves as a fundamental check by the legislature on executive power, holding the president supremely accountable for violating his oath. It seems unwise to rely entirely on an election to hold accountable a president charged with soliciting foreign influence to aid his reelection.
Brooks does not articulate a point at which the value of initiating impeachment proceedings is worth preempting an election. I think that point lies where the nature and severity of the alleged impeachable offense precludes the democratic process from saving itself. The direst allegations against Trump charge him with attacking and corrupting the very democratic mechanism on which Brooks is so eager for us to rely. What good is an election if it’s illegitimate?
It’s not a perfect democratic tool, but it’s the best we have. The damage to the electoral process of holding a parallel impeachment proceeding must be viewed in light of the threat to our democracy by refusing to impeach a president who violated his oath to the people.
Brooks argues that impeachment sends the message to voters that Democratic elites do not trust them to make the right choice. Maybe some will hear this message. But the truth is that this decision is not about the government’s trust in the voters; it is about the voters’ trust in the government. Failure to impeach means more than accepting flagrant corruption – it means accepting the profound loss of trust in democratic institutions that results from such corruption, a trust which could take much longer to restore than it took to lose. Our leaders’ tolerance for this loss of faith signals an outright rejection of the principle of popular sovereignty – to be sovereign the people must trust and consent to their government.
Brooks also argues that impeachment proceedings would distort the electoral process by upstaging policy conversations. Maybe that’s okay. Like presidential debates, impeachment offers an open process of deliberation. And like presidential debates, the process informs and educates the public. But impeachment further serves as a channel for concerns over democratic legitimacy, and provides an outlet for outrage at the abuse of public trust. It creates a platform for the larger conversation our country must have about the state of our democracy, and offers a release for the debate that has been raging – a “constitutional mechanism for sounding that outrage in a more enduring way.”
Finally, when weighing both sides, we must consider the immediate and material threat to the democratic process posed by the president’s alleged actions. Assuming Trump’s guilt means assuming an “ongoing attempt to hijack American foreign policy in service of [his] reelection.” The call for impeachment is more urgent for ongoing behavior than for past conduct because impeachment has the potential to frustrate the advancement of an undemocratic scheme. Here, even if the Senate does not convict the president, impeachment could protect from immediate threats by taking control of the public conversation and raising the stakes of his misconduct. It could at least pause election interference.
So, yes – democracy looks like elections. It looks like campaigning and debating and, surely, it looks like voting. But democracy also looks like everything that happens in between elections to hold officials accountable. In times of division and discord, it looks like the most robust safeguards of our civic institutions emerging for protection. When we face threats to undermine the integrity of elections, it looks like our elected representatives fighting back on our behalf. And right now, it looks a lot like impeaching this president.