The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Stop calling impeachment a political decision

Harvard University professor Danielle Allen says it is wrong to discuss impeachment as a purely political question, not a legal, moral, or constitutional one. (Video: The Washington Post)

We live in an age of corruption. The age has a soundtrack, with earworms. Among the most insidious is that various important decisions are mainly political. Not legal. Not moral. Not constitutional. So deeply has this idea penetrated that it is now articulated by many who are far removed from the actual practice of corrupt and amoral decision-making.

For instance, there has been a drumbeat of such commentary related to impeachment from highly honorable people. Take my Post colleague Fareed Zakaria, who wrote that impeachment “is, by design, an inherently political process, not a legal one.” From Roll Call’s John T. Bennett: As “legal scholars and lawmakers from both parties have echoed — impeachment is much more of a political decision than one about criminality.” Joe Lockhart, Clinton-era White House press secretary, argued in the New York Times that, because impeachment is a fundamentally political decision, Democrats should focus on ensuring that Trump can serve out his term as a way of weakening the Republican Party by locking it into Trumpism. A student said to me over a recent breakfast: “Impeachment is just a political process.” This has become the common wisdom of our corrupt era.

In fact, impeachment is a constitutional mechanism, and the Constitution is a legal document. Impeachment is the legal mechanism designed by the framers to permit the republic to hold the president accountable for wrongdoing while in office. True, impeachment does not proceed through the court system — but that makes it no less legal. True, impeachment is a mechanism assigned to Congress, and therefore to elected politicians. But plenty of judges throughout this country are elected and are politicians, and that in no way diminishes their responsibility for legal and constitutional procedures.

The earworm extends beyond impeachment. Take CNN anchor Kate Bolduan’s question to CNN political director David Chalian in the wake of the news about Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.)’s subpoena to Donald Trump Jr.: “David, since it all comes down to politics, from the contempt vote to the president trying to block release from anything with executive privilege with regard to the Mueller report, now the threat … to subpoena Mueller if they must to get him to testify, now Don Jr. What are people watching play out right now on Capitol Hill?”

In fact, “it” — whatever “it” may be — does not all come down to politics. There are always political elements to our choices, but those should be a matter of tactics, not objectives. Those who think that impeachment, or sending a subpoena to Trump Jr., or holding Attorney General William P. Barr in contempt, reduces to a set of political choices confuse two different elements of decision-making.

We need to remember that we make separate decisions about our purposes and about our tactics.

Human beings are purposive creatures. Our purpose may be to pursue the good of our community, power for our party or our own self-interest. What “it” — what human life — fundamentally comes down to is what our purposes are.

Our purposes in turn establish our strategic objectives. We aspire to succeed in realizing our purposes. That aspiration means we must also think tactically, and as a part of this, we make political judgments: Can I best pursue the common good via this or that path? Can I best realize my constitutional responsibilities, and be effective in carrying them out, with this or that method? And, importantly, which method reinforces the purpose I am pursuing? Which undermines it? Our purposes and tactics should align in two ways. Our tactics should effectively deliver success for our objectives. But they should also embody our purposes. If our purpose is the common good, that reduces the set of tactics available to us to those that reinforce commitments to the common good. The ends do not justify the means. They must be implicit in the means.

But it’s our overarching purposes that shape our world. If we pursue the common good, and find politically effective ways of doing that, we build healthy societies. The view that everything is “just politics” reduces the world to the amoral pursuit of power or domination over others. If we pursue only power for our party, we create a world riven by amoral efforts at mutual destruction. In other words, we bring war inside our walls. If we pursue only our own self-interest, we destroy the social bonds that enable the growth of social trust — itself a public good that supports wealth, prosperity and broad well-being.

The corruption revealed by the Mueller report may warrant impeachment. But if you hear someone tell you that is a “political” question, don’t buy it. The framers certainly did not. They created this legal mechanism as a tool for pursuing the common good, and that’s how we should think about it. Otherwise we’ve allowed the corruption to enter ourselves.

Can we root out the corruption settling into our souls? Can we recover the capacity to seek out and pursue a common good? These are questions for every single one of us. They are questions about the kind of world in which we wish to live. They could not be more consequential.

Read more:

Walter Dellinger: Democrats’ obsession with redaction is obscuring the obvious: Trump committed high crimes

Erik Wemple: What the Mueller report reveals about the media

Erik Wemple: More media lessons from the Mueller report

Jonathan Capehart: Impeach Trump? Here’s how and when.

Karen Tumulty: Impeachment would be a terrible thing for our country. We have another option.