Awaiting America’s Political Renaissance

Now that the impeachment and trial of the President of the United States are over, many of my friends and associates who trade with the United States seem anxious to understand the long-term implications of the process we have just gone through.

Certainly is it true that in the short term, there is a sort of collective sigh of relief.

Conservatives in the United States have been deeply frustrated by the whole process. In fact, there has been a noticeable shift in the way many conservative thinkers have viewed the American people. For a long time, conservatives have portrayed Washington “inside-the-Beltway” ethics as out of step with the fundamentally sound ethics of the American population. Similar contrasts were found between the supposedly good people of the country as opposed to the out-of-step people with loose morals in the media, Hollywood, elite universities, etc.

This always struck me as a bit of wishful thinking or an attempt to woo voters with flattery. In fact, there is scant evidence of citizens actively rejecting the value system of the various elites. With spotty exceptions, citizens have chosen to watch the titillating programs on television and have voted consistently to have their local schools run in the fashion advised by these elites.

More specifically, in not pushing their representatives to replace the President, conservative thinkers have overlooked how the citizenry exhibited a real conservatism of exactly the kind that generally serves conservative causes so well: They do not want radical change.

There is a sense in which it is correct to say that the whole impeachment process proved that the system “worked.” The President was, after all, investigated, whereas, in many other societies, the investigation would have been blocked. He was impeached by the elected representatives of the people, while in many other societies, opposition legislators would not be permitted to exist at all. Finally, if not as extensive as one would have liked, there was a trial and witnesses.

Still, this is thin gruel for a great nation. In part, the process reminds us that the process itself is simply not enough. That not one single Democrat voted to convict on one single count in the Senate indicates that there is something in the culture that is simply not encouraging virtue in our leaders.

That either our society is not producing such people or character, or our political system is not gathering them into Congress, poses a grave threat to the American polity.

Yet the genius of the U.S. founding fathers was confirmed by the very problems presented by the impeachment process. Perhaps one of the benefits is to remind Americans that we depart from the structure bequeathed by the founders only with grave risk.

One area that will certainly be evaluated for the future is the Independent Counsel Act, which is itself foreign to the U.S. Constitution because it violates the separation of powers between judicial, legislative and executive branches of government. If the executive branch is deemed unlikely to properly investigate its own appointees, then the responsibility falls to Congress, and the solution is to insist that Congress do its job rather than graft quasi-constitutional structures onto our tripartite governmental system.

Most conservatives have always opposed the Independent Council Act for precisely this reason. Now that its fangs have become clear to Democrats, it seems likely that the law will be allowed to expire.

With a little luck, this may begin a renaissance in the American polity. Virtue requires practice, and in this sense, the greatest failure of the Independent Counsel Act was allowing Representatives and Senators to pass the buck on small matters. Instead of launching an investigation into political abuses by the White House, they could beg off because they didn’t want to interfere with the independent council’s investigation. With the Independent Council Act in place, members of Congress could avoid the small acts of bravery necessary to ensure a thorough investigation.

The long-term implications of the impeachment of a President will become evident over time. If dissatisfaction with the process leads us back to a new reverence for constitutionalism, with the concomitant need for our representatives to practice virtue in small ways, the next opportunity to be virtuous on a large matter may not strike so many as so unreasonable a demand.