Tocqueville Warned Us About Impeachment

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., responds to reporters as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., calls a meeting with all the House Democrats, many wanting impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump after his latest defiance of Congress by blocking his former White House lawyer from testifying yesterday, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, May 22, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The Impeachment Circus is not new in town.

The carnies began pitching the tents a century and a half ago. Political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville heard the stakes being pounded down in 1835. Tocqueville wrote in his magnum opus Democracy in America:

By preventing political tribunals from inflicting judicial punishments [such as death or prison upon an impeached and convicted executive] the Americans seem to have eluded the worst consequences of legislative tyranny, rather than tyranny itself; and I am not sure that political jurisdiction [of the legislative over the executive], as it is constituted in the United States, is not the most formidable weapon which has ever been placed in the rude grasp of a popular majority. WHEN THE AMERICAN REPUBLIC BEGINS TO DEGENERATE, IT WILL BE EASY TO VERIFY THE TRUTH OF THIS OBSERVATION, BY REMARKING WHETHER THE NUMBER OF POLITICAL IMPEACHMENTS INCREASES. [emphasis added]
Tocqueville’s prediction waited only 33 years for confirmation. In 1868, the House impeached Andrew Johnson for purely partisan reasons, and he was acquitted in the Senate. Since then, every president has governed under increasing threat of politically-driven administrative removal.


The essence of progressivism seems to be: transform the extraordinary and unusual into the ordinary and usual, then proclaim it a “step forward.” For example, history’s most zealous progressive, Vladimir Lenin, encouraged his followers to make terror, torture, and public murder everyday tools of the government, rather than exceptions. Nice guy, that Lenin.
In the Leninist spirit, progressive legal scholars have done their best over the last century to normalize impeachment, tossing a mantle of nuance and objectivity over a Hail Mary play. They plunged into the tall weeds with crystal balls and Ouiji Boards to claim occult knowledge of the Founding Fathers’ beliefs about “high crimes and misdemeanors”— as though the Founders expected felonious behavior regularly to unfold in the executive (they didn’t).
Legal scholars like the ones in front of the House last week removed the glass door covering the fire extinguisher of impeachment and told Congress to spray down the president any time he got above himself, like a dog who jumps up on the furniture. None of this comes as a surprise to anyone familiar with today’s academy: surveys estimate that progressives outnumber conservatives in law faculties 9 to 1.
In a very real sense, the president now governs at the pleasure of the Legislative Branch, just as Tocqueville predicted. A measure of last resort has been transmogrified into a “check and balance,” courtesy of the Ivory Tower.


All this academic speechifying gets it bass ackwards. The Constitution was conceived as a cooperative enterprise held together by self-restraint, morality, and honor. John Adams wrote in 1798:
We have no Government armed with Power capable of contending with human Passions unbridled by morality and Religion. Avarice, Ambition, and Revenge or Galantry, would break the strongest Cords of our Constitution as a Whale goes through a Net. Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
Adams’s worst fears have come to pass. Americans mouth platitudes about justice, righteousness, restraint, and submission to the Constitution while practicing their opposites. Today, “morality” is a dirty word connoting a reactionary and unsophisticated worldview. Religious belief and community continue to crater, and good deal of what’s counted as religion amounts to cults of personality or fundamentalist reflexes against scientific positivism.
Millions of Americans are drowning in debt, divorce, pornography, junk food, gambling, escapist entertainment, legal and illegal drugs, distrust, nihilism, and loneliness. They demand the Constitution submit to THEM, bending it to their moral relativism and self-gratification. That the Constitution can function as intended for such a population is absurd.
The attributes that struck Tocqueville as so quintessentially American—religious morals, local community engagement, and local rule— have vanished. In their place stands a population without a uniting culture, a leviathan administrative state, and a priestly caste of legal experts engorging themselves on the social conflicts they help create.
Lawsuits during the era of Adams and Tocqueville were rare, just like impeachment. Matters have changed: we have grown into a lawyers’ paradise, a population who attack and subjugate one another with the law at every opportunity, regardless of knock-on effects to the system.
Fictitious partisan impeachments are just a minor symptom of the legal and moral decadence in which we stand neck deep. One only needs to glance at the news to see everyone suing everyone over nearly everything. Whether or not you agree with the legal actions, their sheer number is a harbinger of collapse.


Tocqueville thought America would eventually descend into majority tyranny, a grinding legislative authoritarianism and mere democracy, in the worst sense of the word. Adams said without morals and religion, the United States would become “the most miserable Habitation in the World.” Many Americans across the political spectrum would probably agree we are there.
The handwaving among the legal priesthood about “democracy in peril” and “constitutional crises” amounts to shutting the barn doors long after the horses have left the Zip code. If we use Tocqueville and Adams’s standards, the Constitution isn’t in peril; it’s gone. The Constitution evaporated as the American people changed. Now all we have a piece of old paper.
If Americans want to become a genuine constitutional democratic republic again, they won’t accomplish a renaissance by law-professor tribunals in the House and legal machinations in the Supreme Court. Morality and religion must find a place again in the hearts of the people, and it must come by choice, not force. It’s hard to imagine how that might happen, absent some calamity that wakes us up.