We've just published a new essay in The Atlantic: "Don't Let Impeachment Dominate Politics." The essay is adapted from a new epilogue for the paperback edition of our book, To End A Presidency, which will be released on March 5, 2019.
It is surely ironic for the authors of a book about impeachment to warn about the risks of too much focus on impeachment. But our goal in this piece is to offer a critical reflection on the consequences for our democratic system of widespread impeachment talk since President Trump took office. As we emphasize, some important and rather unfortunate implications of this development remain under-appreciated.
From the essay:
Perhaps most disturbing, constant talk of impeachment has raised the stakes of political disagreement—favoring polarization and tribalism, while thwarting compromise and moderation. As the Nixon and Clinton cases show, presidents who find themselves in impeachment territory often respond by seeking to maximize partisan polarization across the board. The playbook is familiar: Attack journalists and prosecutors; denounce political opponents as partisan hacks; smear any damaging witnesses; use the bully pulpit to raise issues that sharply divide the public; and manufacture partisan conflict over every step taken by investigators. Impeachments cannot succeed without substantial bipartisan support—and so presidents under threat must turbocharge partisanship.
That appears to be Trump’s strategy as well. Within weeks of his inauguration, 30 percent of the nation supported his ouster. By May 2017, that number had climbed to 38 to 43 percent. There it has remained—40 percent, plus or minus a few points—for the past 21 months (with a short blip up to 49 percent following the guilty plea of Trump’s longtime fixer, Michael Cohen, and the conviction of his campaign chairman, Paul Manafort). Trump’s general program of maximizing partisanship has helped to keep impeachment mired in tribal division. There is enough support for Trump’s removal from office to keep blood pressures high, but not enough to tip the scales.
Now every political skirmish has become part of a larger war. The White House itself hangs in the balance. If Trump loses big fights, he may also lose his job. That makes it harder to compromise on even minor issues, while pushing officials to pursue an all-or-nothing politics of spectacle in which Trump is vilified or vindicated at every turn
In thinking about impeachment’s place in our democratic system, we must guard against the impulse to view elections as a mere prologue to continued partisan conflict over who may legitimately exercise power. At the same time, elections must also be free and fair to be accepted as legitimate.
And here we arrive at an unavoidable tension. The nation must get to the bottom of any unlawful or corrupt distortions in the 2016 election—and any abuses committed since then. But relentless discussion of impeachment may itself harm our democracy and inflame partisan dysfunction. Worse, impeachment talk can tire people out and create a boy-who-cried-wolf dilemma, making impeachment harder if and when it is truly necessary.
There is no easy way out. But we suspect that less focus on impeachment, and more focus on investigation, would be a good start. We would also note that an impeachment effort is doomed without Republican buy-in. That means persuading Trump supporters to break tribal walls, rather than pursuing political rhetoric that alienates those who don’t already agree.