Why this impeachment is truly a symptom of our broken politics

Why this impeachment is truly a symptom of our broken politics
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Although the Founding Fathers viewed impeachment as a critical check on the abuse of presidential power, they fully understood its ability to inflame and divide the citizenry. As if anticipating the current moment in American history, Alexander Hamilton himself noted that impeachment “will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused.”

Recent events have proven once again the foresight of those who wrote our Constitution. The House vote last week to formally proceed with an impeachment inquiry predictably split along the bitter partisan divide in Congress today, with all Republicans opposed to the measure, and all Democrats save two supporting it. The vote accurately reflects the deep divisions in the country, with 49 percent of Americans saying that the president should be impeached and removed from office, and 47 percent saying that he should not, a recent poll by the Washington Post found.

Given that sharp split among Americans, a political showdown seemed inevitable between a Republican president perpetually inclined to test the boundaries of presidential power and a Democratic majority in the House determined to check what they see as an abuse of presidential power. As Americans contemplate the likely national repercussions of a historic impeachment, however, they should consider that the institutional actors in this drama are already viewed with deep skepticism by the public.


In fact, the downward spiral in our discourse that has led to the current constitutional crisis has been many years in the making, so long that there is an actual risk that the impeachment inquiry underway will be viewed as just another instance of one discredited institution trying to assert its questionable moral authority over another. Such cynicism is the greater danger to our democracy in the United States, and it will surely not be solved by a vote in Congress on whether to impeach Donald Trump.

Put simply, Americans have lost faith in our politics and the institutions of our democracy. It is no wonder. Not long after witnessing the longest shutdown of the federal government in history earlier this year, the public sees yet another potential shutdown looming because of the inability of our politicians to come together long enough to accomplish even basic fundamentals of governance such as funding the government on time.

They constantly read stories and watch news of a political system awash in dark money, unfettered access by special interests, and pay to play politics. The public is also well aware of the relentless efforts by politicians on both sides of the aisle to rig electoral maps to their partisan advantage through gerrymandering, which is a corruption of the “one person one vote” principle that is no less egregious for being allowed in many states.

Polling illuminates the damage. In one recent poll by Gallup, Congress was given an abysmal 18 percent approval rating. In another recent poll by the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service, an overwhelming 90 percent majority across the spectrum report being “tired of politicians in Washington who work with the powerful special interests instead of standing up to them.” However the inquiry of President TrumpDonald John TrumpSanders apologizes to Biden for supporter's op-ed Jayapal: 'We will end up with another Trump' if the US doesn't elect progressive Democrats: McConnell impeachment trial rules a 'cover up,' 'national disgrace' MORE plays out, the fate of one man will not fix a political system that so many view as coarse and corrupt. There is every possibility that it could deepen that distrust, at least in the near term when political passions are highest.

Yet Watergate offers an important historical analogy. The impeachment drama and resignation of President Nixon were followed by a long period that saw the most far reaching “good governance” reforms in modern American history. The 1970s reforms included a wholesale restructuring of our campaign finance system and establishment of the Federal Elections Commission, creation of the offices of inspector generals and the Office of Government Ethics, and passage of the Presidential Records Act, the Freedom of Information Act, and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.


Regardless of the outcome of the current inquiry, a similar cleansing wave of reform is needed to fix our broken politics and counter the corruption and partisanship that led to this crisis. Bipartisan legislative proposals to secure future American elections from foreign interference are a good place to start, but more is needed to counter the corrosive cynicism infecting our politics. Worthwhile reforms of our system include putting an end to partisan gerrymandering and expanding voter choice through procedures like instant runoffs and ranked choice voting, increasing campaign fundraising transparency, enforcing stricter ethics rules, and criminalizing efforts to solicit foreign interference in American elections.

President Trump campaigned successfully on anger at our broken system, but sadly his tenure has only added to voter disillusion and distrust. When the impeachment fever finally breaks, the hard work of restoring the faith of Americans in their political system and government needs to begin.

Glenn Nye (@GlennNye) is president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress and is a former United States representative.