This writer was happy to see the Democrats initiate a formal investigation into impeaching President Trump. Impeachment is a legitimate Constitutional mechanism to address pressing issues of conduct in office, something we desperately need.
Elections are our normal mechanism for sorting out political differences, but there is no way in the long periods between elections to resolve serious tensions like those we have now. In the meantime, we get an endless stream of experts, panelists, commentators and pundits, pontificating on radio, television and the internet, with little or no reality check on their opinions.
Even worse, the fierce partisan views they articulate are absorbed by the rest of us and recycled as opinion in the echo-chambers of our own social networks. This is a recipe for mindless, inconclusive debate, in which each side self-righteously digs in its heels.
The Founders, we’re usually told, saw impeachment as a last resort, confined to “high crimes and misdemeanors.” But maybe it’s time to broaden our understanding of it.
Instead of seeing impeachment as a rare and arcane ritual, we might think of it more like a vote of no-confidence similar to what we see in parliamentary systems. Even in those countries it’s hardly an everyday occurrence, but it is routine enough to providea way to resolve contentious political disputes in a timely way, something we lack.
If a majority of the House of Representatives – arguably the most democratically representative body in the federal government – loses confidence in the president, for whatever reason, then a simple majority (218 votes) can initiate formal impeachment, to be resolved by a vote of the Senate.
What really matters is not the reasons for impeachment – vital as they may be – but the fact that those reasons be credible enough to persuade a majority of Representatives to act on them. An impeachment proceeding, if allowed to unfold, would replace the endless speculations and distorting propaganda of the media with a public process in which arguments and evidence would be presented in a systematic fashion, and a final decision would be rendered by duly elected members of the Senate, one way or the other.
The impeachment process may be our best hope of resolving our current political divide. In fact, we might do well to put more faith in impeachment than in elections to sort out deeply polarized issues. Elections remain essential, but suffer from corruption by campaign donors, PACs, gerrymandering, media propaganda and narrow party interests. In recent decades they seem, sadly, to have exacerbated rather than relieved controversial issues.
However, impeachment differs significantly from a vote of no-confidence in that the former necessarily involves some degree of criminality, whereas the latter can be about honest policy differences as well as crimes. The Constitution states that federal officials, including the president, “shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
Misdemeanors, in the English Common Law tradition, are low rather than high crimes, but crimes nevertheless.
Unlike the other crimes of which he is accused – collusion with foreign governments to subvert American elections, obstruction of justice, emoluments, tax evasion – Trump’s environmental policies arguably qualify as an even greater crime: a crime against humanity.
He has denied the climate change crisis and systematically and purposely obstructed all attempts to remedy it.
Crimes against humanity were first articulated at the Nuremburg Trials, where they were defined as systematic harmful actions taken by organized forces against a general population. These include, it is important to note, not only the atrocities we usually think of, but other high crimes such as political repression, racial discrimination, and religious persecution.
In the face of overwhelming evidence that greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels are accelerating global warming and putting millions of people at risk for property and life, the deliberate insistence by the Trump Administration on fossil fuels at the expense of renewables not only exacerbates the threat; it needlessly puts the planet, and therefore humanity, in serious and potentially fatal danger.
Depriving current and future generations of a viable future, which is what Trump’s climate policies are doing, would seem to quality as a crime against humanity. His climate policies are arguably more harmful to humanity than any of the other accusations he faces. This is what youth activist Greta Thunberg and many others are beginning to point out.
An Oregon case currently in the courts, Juliana v. United States, seeks to establish a clean environment as a fundamental right. If upheld, it would give powerful support to impeachment for harmful environmental practices like Trump’s energy policy.
“Crimes against humanity” sounds ominous, but the penalty under impeachment is simply removal from office. A disgrace, to be sure, but perhaps sufficient for the purpose.
Further personal punishment risks resentment and backlash and is likely to deepen rather than moderate our political polarization.
Future generations in particular are being willfully deprived, by people in power who should know better, of any opportunity for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That’s a taking of the highest order, if not (yet) an atrocity. Trumpian climate policy ought to be recognized for the criminal enterprise against humanity that it is.
retired Hartwick College philosophy professor and Sustainable Otsego moderator, lives in Fly Creek.