Altitude is a column by POLITICO founding editor John Harris, offering weekly perspective on politics in a moment of radical disruption.
U.S. President Donald Trump is acquitted, but the consensus view — shared by nearly all Democrats and even a decent number of Republicans — is that the United States Senate did nothing to acquit itself.
Wednesday’s vote — anticipated with near-perfect precision since the opening hours of the Ukraine scandal in September — has yielded a new indictment: The partisan divisions that saved Trump are an expression of deeper and malignant trends that are a threat to constitutional democracy.
By all means count me in for mournful sermons about the poor civic hygiene of America in the Age of Trump. The patient is indeed sick. But it is not because the pulse of democracy is growing faint.
To the contrary, the fundamental problem of modern political culture is the erosion of accountability. Politicians have shown repeatedly the ability to escape consequences by reframing almost any controversy away from the particulars of misbehavior to the familiar question: Which side are you on, mine or my enemies?
In this dynamic, democracy — or at least the rancid brand of it we have been practicing lately — is as much culprit as victim.
Both the partisan House of Representatives vote to impeach and the partisan Senate vote to acquit were, in broad terms, a faithful reflection of popular will.
In the Trump-Ukraine matter, both the partisan House of Representatives vote to impeach and the partisan Senate vote to acquit were, in broad terms, a faithful reflection of popular will.
It is the nature of popular will — bitterly cleaved, indifferent to facts except as they can be employed as weapon or shield — that is the obstacle.
We can add to this another defining trait of contemporary culture: shredded attention spans. On this score, the news media — certainly myself and most likely you — share culpability with craven politicians. To hold people in power accountable, it helps to remember what we were indignant about the day before yesterday.
For now, let’s examine what we are indignant about today. My colleague Myah Ward crunched some numbers on the Senate vote.
The 48 senators who voted to convict (lone Republican Mitt Romney, plus all Democrats and socialist Bernie Sanders and independent Angus King) represent states with 171.4 million Americans.
The 52 Republicans who voted to acquit represent states with 156 million Americans. (In the ten states where senators voted different directions, Ward allocated half of the state’s population to each side.)
That’s a difference of 15.2 million people, less than five percent of the electorate.
Senators voting to convict won their most recent elections with a total of 69.4 million votes, compared to 48.1 million for their main opponents.
Senators voting to acquit 57.7 million votes in their most recent elections, compared to about 45 million for their main opponents.
I’m drawing no grand analytical conclusions from Ward’s math, merely observing that they seem roughly to approximate recent polls on how Americans approached the Senate trial.
The last two Republican presidents won first terms after losing the popular vote.
In recent years, progressives have grown increasingly impatient with the constitutional features designed to buffer majoritarianism and protect the interests of states, even when those interests are at odds with popular sentiment nationally. Liberal frustration is understandable. The last two Republican presidents won first terms after losing the popular vote. The intentional dilution of pure democracy in the Senate — Wyoming’s 600,000 people get two senators; so do California’s 40 million—is growing starker each year.
David Birdsell, dean of the school of public and international affairs at Baruch College in New York, has done research projecting that in 20 years, 70 percent of Americans will live in the 15 largest states, meaning that 30 percent of Americans will be represented by 70 senators. (His findings were publicized by the Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib.)
These structural distortions may well be a long-term problem for constitutional democracy. But there isn’t much in the impeachment ordeal that advances this argument in the short term.
A POLITICO/Morning Consult poll last week found 50 percent approval for removing Trump from office, and 43 percent disapproval. A composite of polls by the FiveThirtyEight website found that 84 percent of Democrats, 42 percent of independents, and nine percent of Republicans wanted Trump removed from office. This averaged out just under 48 percent of all Americans—by coincidence the very number of senators voting to remove.
So failure to reflect democracy’s will isn’t the problem. In fact, Romney, not used to be extolled by Democrats, took his vote to convict in apparent defiance of the Utah Republicans who sent him to the Senate.
In doing so, and in his brutal words about Trump’s conduct in attempting to use military aid as leverage to induce Ukraine to investigate the Biden family, Romney was doing something rare: Saying what he honestly thought based on his own notions of right and wrong, rather than calculating his words around political consequences. (This was also rare for Romney, who in the past has flipped his views on core issues like abortion rights and making health insurance mandatory based on political imperatives.)
Romney in his floor speech said his fellow Republicans were casting different votes in good faith. That’s a generous appraisal. It is impossible to believe that Senate Republicans would think it would be fine if President Hillary Clinton had linked military aid to her domestic political needs, or even that they would be disturbed by this but think impeachment is excessive.
Would some Democrats join Republicans in trying to remove Clinton from office?
The question is ultimately imponderable.
But one paradox of the past 30 years is that the various legal and political instruments to investigate, expose and try to punish misbehavior of people in power have not made it harder to get away with questionable behavior. They have made it easier.
This inability to give sustained focus on ethical matters is not a structural challenge of the U.S. Constitution.
Bill Clinton was investigated for years over obscure business dealings in the Whitewater affair that took place a decade before he came to power. His decision to replace the White House travel office was a controversy that echoed for his first term. The fund-raising that allowed foreign money to seep into his re-election coffers was not merely unseemly; House Speaker Newt Gingrich called it “the opening phase of what will turn out to be the largest scandal in American history.”
Twenty years later, it is worth recalling the matters that have only briefly dented headlines during the Trump years, or in some cases barely dented them at all.
Recall that Trump is the first president in the modern era to not release his taxes; he is facing inquiries over his Inaugural Committee’s overseas contributions and its contracts at his hotels and his personal foundation’s unfulfilled pledges of donations to worthy causes. He has seen the criminal convictions of his campaign manager, his first national security adviser and his personal lawyer. He has confronted allegations of self-dealing or misuse of taxpayer funds among officials at his health department, EPA and Transportation Department, among others.
These and other matters briefly cause an uproar, or not, then fade from consciousness of the opposition party, of the news media, of the public.
This inability to give sustained focus on ethical matters that an earlier generation would have commanded national attention for months or years is not a structural challenge of the U.S. Constitution. Nor it is a thwarting of democracy. It is the expression of a democracy that has allowed its muscles of accountability to atrophy.