Ignorance may be bliss, but knowledge is power. Or at least that is what US founding father and philosopher James Madison thought.
Madison believed that for the American democratic experiment to succeed, each participant had to be informed. Freedom, he thought, came with responsibility. “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge brings,” he wrote in the 18th century, an exhortation now etched on the outer walls of the Library of Congress.
Yet just across the street from the building where Madison’s words serve as a reminder to all who pass, some American politicians—all of whom have sworn an oath to the Constitution that Madison and his fellows formulated in 1787—are engaged in a dangerous misinformation campaign with grave implications.
Miffed by the inquiry into Donald Trump’s Ukraine dealings, which today yielded House Judiciary Committee approval of two articles of impeachment—abuse of power and obstruction of Congress—Republicans have framed the process as a “sham” and a purely political Democratic tactic to attempt to remove Trump from office ahead of the 2020 elections. Mike Johnson of Louisiana, for example, tweeted that the American people should get the final vote and that impeachment isn’t intended as a “corrective option.”
Johnson is right. Impeachment wasn’t designed to remove an unpopular president, just as elections weren’t created to investigate executives. Impeachment was designed to obtain information and use the knowledge to protect the American people and their institutions, to ensure the nation’s safety.
Thus, failing to follow up on allegations of wrongdoing, or engage with them in good faith, is a breach of duty.
Betraying public trust
“One of the most significant yet underappreciated lessons of the history of impeachment is that it was intended as a tool to strengthen the nation’s security—specifically to chart a middle path between an unlimited and unaccountable presidency and one that was insufficiently powerful to protect the nation,” explains constitutional scholar and former US Secretary of State staffer Charles Edel in Lawfare.
Debates over the impeachment clause at the Constitutional Convention of Philadelphia in 1787 show that the framers saw it as a means to defend the integrity of government rather than to punish a corrupt official, and they specifically discussed whether elections were a sufficient check, concluding they were not.
It is “indispensable that some provision should be made for defending the Community [against] the incapacity, negligence or perfidy of the chief Magistrate,” Madison argued. Elections wouldn’t do that, as the president “might pervert his administration into a scheme of peculation or oppression. He might betray his trust to foreign powers.”
Trump is accused of doing just that. He allegedly used his public office to advance his personal political interests, jeopardizing security by inviting foreign interference in the American electoral process. So, it stands to reason that an election isn’t the best way to judge what he’s done and that this is precisely the kind of situation the framers sought to address with impeachment, as 500 legal scholars noted in a letter to Congress on Dec. 6.
Anyone who wants to ensure the safety of the nation and the integrity of American government—whether or not they support Trump— should be intent on conducting legitimate proceedings that can illuminate the important issues here.
Shamming it up
But that’s not going to happen. Next week, the full House will vote on articles of impeachment, and if approved, the Senate will conduct a trial early in 2020.
The Republican majority leader, senator Mitch McConnell, has already vowed “total coordination” with Trump in a Senate trial. This ensures that the impeachment trial will be a sham, although McConnell has the power to make it perfectly legitimate. He is actually promising to go through the motions rather than seek the truth.
That is a shame and would surely disappoint the framers. In their view, McConnell and all of his colleagues, whether Republican or Democrat, are expected to be, above all else, interested in upholding their duty to the Constitution and to protect the nation.
Presumably, that’s why House speaker Nancy Pelosi told her fellow Democrats to “vote with their conscience.” You can doubt her sincerity, perhaps, but at least she is paying lip service to principle when she acknowledges ethics come above politics. It could be pretense, arguably, but it’s something.
Indeed, it’s the minimum to be expected from a people’s representative. With that statement, Pelosi signals that the outcome of this process isn’t meant to be predetermined, that a faithful politician puts principle above party, which means their vote is an open question that depends on whether the evidence truly indicates that the president endangered the nation.
Meanwhile, McConnell has decried the process and evidence that has thus far been collected while broadcasting his intent to tailor the proceedings he’ll be leading to the president’s needs. The people deserve politicians who aren’t just false friends of the Constitution, but the Senate majority leader refuses to even pretend fidelity to it. His rhetoric threatens the integrity of the very institutions that McConnell, Pelosi, and their colleagues have all sworn to protect.
For us by us
The framers saw impeachment as a defense mechanism, not a punitive one. Unlike British impeachment, the American process doesn’t allow for punishment, just removal from office. That’s because—though this would be tough for Trump to stomach—this whole process is not really about the president.
It’s not personal. It’s national.
“Impeachment was intended as a rare but necessary safeguard to the security and proper functioning of the nation’s democratic processes. Its intent was defensive, which required expeditious removal of the president from office, lest he repeat actions deemed gravely harmful to the proper functioning of the state,” Edel writes.
In support of this, he cites constitutional law scholar and impeachment expert Charles Black, who in 1974 observed that “we could punish a traitorous or corrupt president after his term expired; we remove him principally because we fear he will do it again.”
So any politician who undermines the process designed to address national security threats, rather than engaging in the current proceedings with an open mind, is shirking their constitutional duty and telegraphing incompetence for public office. Madison expected Americans to seek knowledge, not thwart its discovery while wallowing in blissful ignorance. Those afraid of the true power that knowledge brings aren’t fit to sit in the halls of government.