OPINION: Impeachment is justified, but a giant mistake


AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Night falls on the Capitol, in Washington during the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. For all the gravity of a presidential impeachment trial, Americans don’t seem to be giving it much weight. Web traffic and TV ratings tell a similar story, with public interest seeming to flag after the House voted last month to impeach a president for only the third time in U.S. history.

Shortly after House Democrats launched their impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, conservative political commentator and baseball superfan George F. Will described watching House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spar with the Trump administration as like watching baseball legend Omar Vizquel play shortstop. This was — from a man who fundamentally disagrees with many of her political persuasions — a glowing compliment.  

And it’s a fair comparison. Vizquel is widely considered to be the greatest defensive shortstop of all time; and Pelosi, regardless of your politics, is among the most shrewd political leaders to ever walk the halls of Congress. Both captains of their respective domains, they lead with an expert, veteran presence. Cool, calm and collected in their approach, both operate with lethal precision.  

But here’s the problem: When a baseball player uses their brilliance to, say, end your favorite team’s playoff run, you would still find a way to applaud the greatness you just witnessed. In politics, however, that kind of recognition rarely crosses the aisle. In sports, moments of individual brilliance bring us together; in politics, they risk driving us further apart.

Under Pelosi’s leadership, House Democrats impeached a sitting U.S. president for just the third time in our nation’s history, setting the stage for the first ever trial of an elected president in his first term. And these proceedings, based solely on the actions of the president and his administration, are quite justified. But in an era of extreme polarization, the impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump risk further damage to our civic culture, setting Democrats on an even more uncertain and treacherous path toward the 2020 elections. 

Moments of polarization will always crop up in any society, but this modern rise of political polarization did not occur naturally. Ever since the advent of cable television and the internet, the way we engage with politics has changed drastically — and fundamentally altered what we believe and why we believe it. 

Ben Epstein, a political science professor at DePaul and political communication expert, says the very same media market that has democratized information for the masses has also contributed greatly to our increasing division.

“We call it the media, but the media is a lot of different things,” Epstein said. “And it has become increasingly diverse and fragmented in terms of sources of content, in terms of platforms and outlets — and there are a lot of good things as a result of that.”

More people have more access to information today than at any time in history. People also have more avenues to share it, and fewer gatekeepers standing in their way. But it’s not all sunshine and lollipops. 

“We’ve always had partisan press — and what we have today is an extremely partisan time,” Epstein said. “But what is different today is that different outlets can not only send different messages, frame things differently and use entirely different vocabulary — but those can be entirely isolated for an audience to only get one thing, in a way that was harder to do in the past with older technology.” 

It’s a new world, and thus, a new political order. A world in which facts don’t have a proper context, only the specific framing we wish to give them. We can bounce around from network to network, website to website, rejecting everything you see until it confirms our own biases.

Today the nation is increasingly split between those who believe traditional media and those who don’t — which is exactly how Trump wants it. A 2018 Quinnipiac poll published by FiveThirtyEight found that 75 percent of people who identify as Republican trust Trump to tell the truth more than the news. Predictably, the same poll showed more than 80 percent of Democrats believe the exact opposite. 

We can see this split manifest in Trump’s approval rating. Since Trump took office, the American public has not changed their opinion of the president — his approval rating has remained locked in the low 40s since the day he took office, with a brief dip into the mid 30s near the end of his first year. When Trump brokered a meeting with North Korea, nobody changed their mind. When he put children in cages on the southern border and denied them basic medical services, the public still held strong to their convictions. No American president since the advent of approval polling has ever experienced this kind of remarkable consistency in public opinion.  

“I go to FiveThirtyEight, I go to RealClearPolitics multiple times a week and I don’t know why I do sometimes,” Epstien said. “I’m interested in: are things moving a percentage or two one way or another and then three weeks later, things are going to bounce back. [That’s due to] a number of things, but I think fundamentally it’s the resiliency of his supporters. They are, overall, loyal to that brand and will stick with him.”

Epstein also notes that, even in a world where public opinion responds to the president’s behavior, impeachment doesn’t have a history of making the electorate sour on the president. Bill Clinton’s most popular week in office was the week he was impeached by the House of Representatives. 

There is a common misconception in American politics that our representatives are out-of-touch with the electorate. In fact, the growing partisan divide among politicians is a reflection of the growing divide among the voters. In his book “The Polarized Public,” Emory University professor Alan I. Abramowitzs illustrates how moderate establishment Republicans were unseated by hyper-conservative candidates like Rand Paul of Kentucky and Sharron Angle in Nevada. Fans of the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a left-wing Democrat from New York’s 14th district, know that the same shift has happened across the aisle. In both cases, the party establishment not only disapproved of the shift, they actively fought it.         

The impeachment of Donald Trump is justified from a legal standpoint and allowing  his behavior to go unchecked is an uncomfortable thing to argue for. But our modern political environment is so polarized and enraged that there is likely no virtue in an impeachment effort that was destined to fail from the start. If opinions won’t be changed, an impeachment battle only promises to cement our already crippling divide.