Back to Prindle Institute

When Should We Be Undemocratic?

photograph of the White House at night

I am inclined to think the following two things:

  1. The Senate should have convicted former President Trump and prohibited him from holding future office (as permitted by Article I, Section 3, Clause 7 of the U.S. constitution).
  2. It would have been undemocratic for the Senate to bar President Trump from future office.

Why do I think it undemocratic to bar President Trump from office? Simply because it removes the ability of the democratic populous to select him once again as president. Certainly, I think his behavior should disqualify him from ever holding public office again; but there are a great many people who I believe should never hold public office, and yet it would be undemocratic for my will to be decisive in preventing my fellow citizens from electing them.

Barring a president from future office, then, is actually far more profoundly undemocratic than removing a president who was voted into office. After a president has been elected, it takes four years before the people could vote him or her out. Thus, impeachment and removal is necessary to maintain an interim political check. The problem with barring someone from future office, however, is that future elections already provide this democratic check. The people can choose to not reelect someone! To bar someone from holding office says: even if the people choose to reelect, even then, he or she should not be allowed to take that seat.

I’m tempted to console myself here; to tell myself that President Trump’s behavior made him a threat to democracy, and as such it is not undemocratic to remove his name from the list of potential candidates. This, however, I think would just be a pleasing rationalization. It is, itself, undemocratic for me to unilaterally decide which threats to democracy should (and should not) bar one from future office. For a long time, people thought that there was something essentially undemocratic about electing a Catholic to high office, since that would put U.S. decision-making under the moral control of the Pope. Of course, this was just anti-Catholic bigotry; but who am I to say the argument about Catholics is wrong and the argument about President Trump is right? When I look at the evidence this seems clear, but looking at the evidence I also thought Trump should never be president, and it would clearly have been undemocratic to make that choice for the nation.

To see the worry, note that I think there are many undemocratic aspects of both the Democratic and Republican platforms. But it would clearly be undemocratic to prohibit any Republicans or Democrats from running for office. To decide what undemocratic behavior disqualifies one from office should, in a democracy, be up to the people.

Most arguments I heard against impeachment seemed bad to me, but even I had to admit there was something to the worry that it would be undemocratic to not let the people decide for themselves.

Of course, there are goods other than democracy, and those goods speak in favor of impeaching President Trump. In particular, it seems important that we maintain a credible political threat against lame-duck presidents who have been voted out of office. If the Senate cannot impose a penalty barring future office, if the president is already on the way out the door, and if we want to preserve the norm against criminally prosecuting political enemies, then it is unclear what threat there is to hold a president in line other than impeachment (of course, this problem will still apply to president’s in their second term; so even impeachment is not an altogether adequate solution).

Now, I don’t want to here analyze whether it was right to bar President Trump from office. (I think it is, at least in this case, rather clear that barring him from office would have been the right thing to do all things considered.)

But I’m still worried, because I have no general principle for how to make these tradeoffs. I have no idea how to make comparisons between the undemocratic nature of barring someone from future office, and the importance of the social goods granted by the threat of impeachment. In this case, I have the strong intuition that the limited harm to democracy is unimportant when compared to the gains granted by deterrence. And, in fact, in this case, I’m actually pretty confident in that intuition. If any case is clear, it seems to me that this is going to be this one.

But what if the case were messier; what if the president’s behavior was itself less brazenly undemocratic? How would I go about comparing the good of democracy to other social goods? In a previous Prindle Post piece, I argued that, psychologically, we often make these decisions by intensity matching. How undemocratic does impeachment feel? How terrible do the president’s actions feel? If the president’s actions feel more terrible than impeachment feels undemocratic, then we should impeach and bar from future office. If the impeachment feels more undemocratic than the president’s behavior feels terrible; then impeach but don’t bar from future office. As I argued in that piece, however, the problem with intensity matching is that it does not reliably connect with any moral reality.  It depends on how one anchors their own scale, and often produces morally bizarre behavior (like a willingness to spend the same amount of money to save one hundred or one hundred thousand birds from oil spills).

So if our gut intuitions don’t tell us how to make this comparison, we need some principle. But right now I don’t see what that principle could be; and I think that should make us all a little more cautious in our calls for political action.

Of Trump and Truth

photograph of empty US Capitol steps

Donald Trump, president of the United States of America, is a pathological liar. This is not a revelatory statement or controversial position. But it is occasionally worthwhile reminding ourselves, in case we become numb to it, how extraordinary a fact it is that continuous deceit is the widely acknowledged reality and defining characteristic of the 45th presidency.

Trump lies about big, important things and small, banal things. He tells transparent lies: “Between 3 million and 5 million illegal votes caused me to lose the popular vote.” He tells absurd lies: “Now, the audience was the biggest ever. But this crowd was massive. Look how far back it goes. This crowd was massive.” He tells mendacious lies: “We’ve taken in tens of thousands of people. We know nothing about them. They can say they vet them. They didn’t vet them. They have no papers. How can you vet somebody when you don’t know anything about them and you have no papers? How do you vet them? You can’t.”  He tells self-serving lies: “I am the least racist person ever.” He tells offhanded lies: “My father is German, Right? Was German. And born in a very wonderful place in Germany, and so I have a great feeling for Germany.”

The Washington Post has a lie tally. At time of writing the count is, for 993 days in office, 13,435 lies or misleading statements.  That is an average of 13.5 lies per day. That’s a lie every two hours. But that’s just the flat average; actually, the daily number of lies has been increasing exponentially – the average had risen from five a day during Trump’s first nine months in office to thirty a day in the seven weeks before the 2018 midterm elections.

But lying is not, it would seem, merely an idiosyncrasy of the president, but official administration policy. Following the now infamous remarks about the inaugural crowd size, Kelly Anne Conway first used the phrase ‘alternative facts’. Rudy Giuliani, in August 2018, dropped his bombshell: “truth isn’t truth.” And remember the lot of erstwhile press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who may not have been progenitor of such zingers as Giuliani or Conway coined, but who nevertheless gave a stolid performance night after night deflecting reality?

This is a deeply shocking situation, and yet, even as it (currently) culminates in the revelations of an impeachment trial that has outdone itself for shocking testimony, the fact that the US president lies continuously, relentlessly, daily, is taking up a position as the ‘new normal.’ But truth is so fundamental to our political and ethical lives that without it politics and ethics will become all but impossible. So what can the effect of this ‘new normal’ be?

The epistemological problem, the problem of knowledge, is a deep philosophical question of how we acquire knowledge and what counts as knowledge. Epistemological skepticism casts doubt upon the possibility of knowing the world around us; upon the origins or the foundational soundness of knowledge. Notwithstanding problems of verification that are philosophically intricate, the idioms ‘alternative facts’ and ‘truth is not truth’ are not cases of epistemological skepticism. These statements are not questioning the nature or origin of truth; they are attempting to undermine its moral authority.

Truth has a fundamentally moral character. According to Immanuel Kant, truth is a categorical imperative. We have a duty to tell the truth because we could not live in a world in which we would not will others to tell the truth. A world where truth was not a ‘moral law’ would cease to function. In this sense truth is a kind of cardinal moral category. It is not just moral in the special sense of being a binding duty unto itself, but in the practical and general sense of enabling the integrity of the very structures of morality to be possible at all. Morality needs truth; truth is a necessary condition for ethics.

The companion concept of truth is trust, similarly without which a moral system could hardly function, since justice and compassion depend upon it. Without truth there cannot be trust, and without trust the political and moral is degraded and social contracts are at risk of breaking down.

Can morality be irrevocably eroded by Trump’s litany of falsehoods? What effect will it have? How will the ‘moral fabric’ of American society be impacted?

In her book On Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt makes a remark about a famous anti-Semitic conspiratorial forgery known as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which was widely believed and taken up. Arendt remarks that the circumstances of its production were not as significant as the forgery’s being believed by so many.

But surely, given that Donald Trump’s lies are mostly bald-faced, his supporters must know he is a liar? Certainly, George Conway thinks they do. In March he said in a tweet, “…Even his die-hard supporters… know he’s a liar. They just don’t care.”

Here, then, the situation may be worse: contrary to Arendt, the most important thing may not be the circumstances of the production of lies, or even that they might be believed, but that the lies are tolerated, brushed off, and factored in. This is not a moral failing, but a moral abrogation.

Impeachment as a Means to an End

photograph of Capitol building with U.S. flag flying below the Statue of Freedom

As the House unrolled its impeachment inquiry despite polling evidence that public sentiment was not on its side, a slew of editorials suggested that, as with Watergate, the impeachment proceedings themselves were likely to tip public opinion. So far, poll numbers have not borne fruit. Support for impeachment seems to be eroding as support for Trump inches upward. If the Senate is unlikely to vote for conviction, the best Democrats can do is weaken Trump’s 2020 campaign. If it only seems to be strengthening his support, was impeachment a poorly calculated mistake? Only a shallow understanding of politics, however, should lead us to think that impeachment has been a political failure.

We often think of politics as the art of the possible, assuming that any political ploy that does not aim at straightforwardly achievable policy goals is misguided. But as Simone de Beauvoir already pointed out in 1945, in her “Moral Idealism and Political Realism”, this is to misunderstand what the possible is. Beauvoir struggled with the question of how means and ends relate to each other in politics. The French who collaborated with the Nazi occupation often claimed in their defense that resistance could not succeed and they did what was necessary to save France. They adjusted their means to their ends, believing that collaboration was a bow to inescapable reality.

Beauvoir takes the collaborators to task. A brazen political realism of this sort assumes that the ends and the means are separate. If the end is important enough—the defeat of Nazism, for example—it seems as if any means are good enough. Similarly, if the goal is to remove Trump from office, Democrats should pursue only the strategy best calculated to achieve it; this seemingly commonsense view also arises in voters’ oft-discussed concern with electability as a driving consideration in the primaries. Beauvoir’s response is that the means are not simply technical instruments designed to achieve a distinct outcome; they are part of the outcome.

Removing Trump from office is not in itself the goal. What has occasioned impeachment is this administration’s attempt to reduce American foreign policy to a Soviet-style crony government, where political transactions are carried on through personal influence and shadow policy entirely outside normal channels. Compared to Trump’s other impeachable offenses, like violations of the emoluments clause and obstruction of justice, this one is especially grievous because it redefines our place in the international community. That place has already been severely damaged by our withdrawal from the Paris Accords, violation of the Iran nuclear deal, support for Putin and other autocrats, abandonment of our Kurdish allies, and a host of other diplomatic malversations. But on top of that, and ultimately more politically troubling, it is now clear that U.S. foreign policy is dictated by the political and financial needs of the President and his inner circle. Corruption on this scale is extraordinarily difficult to flush out of domestic affairs once it has set in, but the difficulty is dramatically increased in international affairs, when not only our diplomatic corps but also those of foreign governments become thoroughly compromised.

The struggle for the soul of American politics is not merely a struggle for Trump’s removal. It’s a struggle to restore the idea—however flawed it may be in practice—of America as a moral leader, with the soft power capable of defending human rights, democratic institutions, and the rule of law around the world. In the current political climate, that idea has not merely evaporated; it is actively being replaced by the specter of the U.S. as a world power using its awesome capacity for incentive and disincentive to serve political cronies. This damage cannot be undone simply by changing leadership. It can be undone only through a political transformation.

That transformation isn’t simply a matter of new government. Imagine if a different president were elected in 2020. That might signal that the U.S. is ready for a different diplomatic model, but it would not restore its position of leadership. If that position can be restored, how we get there is crucial. Protest, both by citizens and members of Congress, is important, but it doesn’t signal political change. Government officials must not only pay lip service to fighting corruption, but must also act against it. To have a chance of success at winning back the mantle of moral leadership, the U.S. must show that corruption will not be tolerated. The impeachment hearings must disclose its scope, and future trials must impose consequences.

Beauvoir argues that the means are an ineliminable part of any human end: it matters not only that I receive a trophy, but that I earn it; not only that we have universal health care, but that we as a nation pass it; world peace reached through mass genocide would be a peace stained forever. In the case of impeachment, the hearings are not only a way of getting to a particular political state of affairs. They are crucial to what it could mean to reinstate a polity that both American citizens and foreign governments could rely on, because that polity would be one that is not only ruled by law, but also established and maintained by law.

This isn’t to say that we should turn to an idealism, indifferent to what it is politically possible to accomplish. Beauvoir has some strong words for moral purists whose aims are so lofty that pursuing them with clean hands is impossible, and who thus give up entirely on acting to change the world. What’s possible, however, depends on what we take to be possible. If we were to decide that the only realistic option for returning the U.S. to a rule of law were through elections, keeping quiet about Trump’s wide-scale corruption in the meantime, then what’s possible would be not the reinstatement of the rule of law, but only a change in priorities. If the end is to replace not only the corrupt regime, but also the degraded image of the U.S. on the world stage, only public investigations and trials, shored up by political will, can make that possible.

A U.S. without the Trump presidency would likely be less corrupt than the U.S. with a Trump presidency. By that logic, the removal of Trump, even without impeachment, is better than nothing. But a U.S. that has confronted corruption at the top, exposed it, and put an end to it, is a far stronger and more reliable country. It would be a country that is better equipped to fight such corruption at the top in the future (an important consideration, since allowing corruption to go unchallenged also creates future precedent) as well as one that is more strongly set against corruption in its political orientation and institutions. These two ends, in other words—Trump’s removal without impeachment and Trump’s removal via impeachment—are different from each other, because the means are part of the end result. Even if impeachment fails to lead to removal and Trump is removed instead via elections in 2020, the country would be different than if it had failed to chance impeachment at all, because it will have built the moral and political courage necessary to undertake it. Ultimately, even if Trump wins a second term, it will be in a country that has resisted and not simply capitulated, and thus a better country.