The problem is that the American people want contradictory things. For the past 18 months, I’ve had the pleasure of working on an American Academy of Arts and Sciences commission on the practice of democratic citizenship. That’s a mouthful, but it poses an important question: What do we want for the future of our democracy? To try to deepen our understanding of the range of potential answers to that question, our commission has held 50 engagement sessions around the country with Americans of a remarkable range of backgrounds — ethnic, religious, socioeconomic and ideological.
One consistent theme is that Americans of all kinds are tired of information overload and the challenge of sorting out good from bad information in the sound and fury of our hurricane-force media ecosystem.
As one organizer of youth civic leaders from across the political spectrum put it, young people routinely tell them: “Just tell it to me straight.” They want clear verdicts on facts.
The word verdict comes from the Latin, vera dicere — to speak the truth. To tell it straight. The purpose of an impeachment by the House, which is an indictment, and of a trial in the Senate, is to achieve a verdict — straight talk on matters of fact.
Did our president break the law? I believe that America wants a clear verdict on this question. I also suspect America no longer believes it can have such a thing.
A fair, sound and decent impeachment process, in which our lawmakers remember that their duty is to uphold and enforce the law, ought to yield a verdict — whether of guilt or innocence — that provides a genuinely stable point for our understanding of what we have been living through for the past three years. I believe America does want such a stable anchoring point.
The problem, as best as I can tell, is that Americans do not believe that politicians will vote according to what the law demands — or worse, that they will actively work to obscure the facts throughout the proceedings. As a result, we face an impeachment process with little legitimacy, and the prospect of an outcome that the losing side will spin as purely political. Our division and our factionalism
make it hard for us to get past the problem of misinformation. This is what Americans definitely do not want.
This means that the only way for an impeachment process to work — in the sense of reaching a clear verdict and not in the sense of removing a president — is for those who are leading it to make blindingly clear that their interest is the law and not politics. In this regard, Nadler’s tight focus on legal questions and his willingness to buck Pelosi’s hyperpolitical approach to the question of impeachment provide the only possible path to a legitimate proceeding that the American people could come to support.
We do need to work collectively to rebuild the legitimacy and viability of the processes we use for fact-finding and truth-telling. Impeachment is a process that is supposed to deliver not the removal of a president but, in the first instance, just a verdict. It is a process that, like any other judicial proceeding, is supposed to deliver a stable picture of the facts of the matter and their significance. An honest approach to impeachment requires accepting that you do not know upfront where the proceedings will come out. You can’t start with a verdict, or else the process is worth nothing.
So do the American people want impeachment proceedings? That’s not the right question. Instead, pollsters should be asking: Do the American people indeed want a clear verdict on whether our president has broken the law? I believe — and hope — that they do.