Impeachment has become an ever more contentious topic in the world of American politics throughout the course of this year. Many questions around this topic are primarily concerned with the chances of success, the potential aftermath effects for the individual parties, and the influence it will have on the upcoming election year. However, there is one other question that is worth investigating: how impeachment as an institution affects our understanding of representation. By examining polling data and key theoretical foundations of representation, we can understand several key aspects of how and why choosing a path of impeachment may or may not adequately represent a majority opinion in the American populous.
Before proceeding, it is important to clarify two key terms: principal and agent. Throughout this article, these two terms may be used to describe the relationship between elected officials and voters. A principal can be thought of as a person endowed with some degree of political authority. Principals then yield some of that authority to agents so that they may make decisions about policy and lawmaking. For example, voters can be thought of as principals that yield political power to agents, such as representatives and Senators, who then pass laws and make decisions on voters’ behalf. Without being elected, Congressman do not have any ability to pass laws or create policy, thus it is the voters that originally hold political authority.
The model of representation that this article focuses on is the trustee-delegate model. In this model, an elected government representative can either act as a trustee and advocate for policy based on what (s)he believes is best for his or her constituents, or a delegate in which case (s)he will refer to constituents’ preferences directly, even if the representative does not believe it is the best course of action. Simply, one role acts as a discretionary figure for a given constituency (trustee) whereas the other acts as a mouthpiece and direct advocate for their policy preferences (delegate). The importance of this distinction rests in whether or not voters believe it necessary and proper for a representative to more or less dictate what is beneficial to them, or if they would prefer to be the final judgement on that decision. In cases of impeachment, this importance may not seem quite as obvious because the President is not directly elected by voters and therefore is not their agent. Nonetheless, because the ability to begin impeachment proceedings is an enumerated power vested in Congress, whose members are directly elected by voters, their decision on whether or not to pursue impeachment should be considered a vital aspect of representation for constituencies. It is important to ask: With regards to questions of impeachment, should a representative take on a trustee or delegate role?
This question then forces us to think about the relative degree of influence both public opinion and partisanship have on impeachment inquiries. Currently, it would appear as though impeachment is a largely partisan issue. Across the board polls project an overwhelming percentage of democrats as supportive of impeachment and vast majority of republicans as against. FiveThirtyEight has been tracking impeachment poll results since August 1st of this year. They compile results from numerous existing polls, average answers to yes or no questions regarding impeachment together, and then project support and don’t support trends over time. Not surprisingly, Democrats have always been projected above Republicans to support impeachment, with the lowest projections showing about 63.1% of Democrats in support (FiveThirtyEight). Contrastingly, the highest projections for Republicans at any time only ever reached 15.2%. With this large of a disparity, it seems clear that the roots of this impeachment proceeding go beyond constitutional or moral merit, according to these poll results.
Even without poll numbers, the split along party lines in the House of Representatives is indicative in and of itself. On October 10th, the New York Times published a complete list of representatives from the House and their stance on impeachment of the President. According to that list, 227 Democrats out of 235 support an impeachment inquiry (New York Times). Meanwhile, 183 out of 197 Republicans do not support an impeachment inquiry, while the remaining 14 have not stated their positions. Considered simultaneously, these statistics imply a huge degree of partisanship in this impeachment process. Historically, this makes sense. Both the Nixon and Clinton impeachment narratives reveal similar degrees of partisanship. Practically, this divide along party lines also makes sense. A divided party, especially among the leadership, signals disunity which can be a point of attack for the opposing party in upcoming elections and when pursuing policy.
However, although Democrats and Republicans appear heavily divided on this issue, public opinion tells a different narrative. In addition to tracking polling numbers between parties, FiveThirtyEight also tracks general polling numbers regardless of partisan labels. There are three significant events within the last six months that are worth looking at. First, on April 18th when the Mueller Report was made public, 51.5% of Americans did not support impeaching or impeaching and removing the President, while 37.8% did. Even the day after it was released, 46.6% did not support, while 38.5% did. Second, on July 24th when Robert Mueller testified before Congress, 49.5% of Americans did not support impeachment, compared to 40.8% that did. The day after his testimony, these numbers stood at 48.9% and 40.8% respectively. Lastly, on the day that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi filed for an official impeachment inquiry, September 24th, 51.0% of Americans did not support impeachment, while 38.2% did (FiveThirtyEight). These polling results demonstrate that among American citizens, clear plurality, even during times when the President has faced tremendous allegation and scrutiny, has not been reached often. Even when it has, the majority of Americans have not supported impeachment or removal from office, albeit by a slim margin.
Judging from the data above, it is fair to surmise that when representatives move to conduct impeachment inquiries, it is not representative of public opinion but more so of partisan division. Representatives tend to align their views more with their respective parties, which in turn propagate certain messages about the official facing threat of impeachment. Therefore, during threats of impeachment, representatives adopt party goals, either push to impeach or push to reject impeachment, and essentially act as a trustee agent to their principals. So, in the case of the current impeachment case, a Democratic representative will more likely than not push for impeachment on the grounds that impeachment of the official in question is best for the citizens of the representative’s constituency.
Public opinion has taken a back seat to partisan preferences in this case of impeachment. One could argue that Democrats were hasty in pushing for an impeachment inquiry as quickly as they did, especially considering that on the day Speaker Pelosi confirmed the request, 51.0% of Americans did not support impeachment proceedings. Whether or not this was appropriate is not the intention of this article. Rather, this article means to provide the facts of the situation and contend that public opinion did not seem to be the primary motivation for an impeachment inquiry. Furthermore, these facts allow us to consider for future purposes what kind of representation we as citizens would prefer. Do we allow our elected officials to act as discretionary figures, or should they assume advocate roles on behalf of their voters? The question of trustee-delegate representation continues, and most likely will continue, to be an ongoing source of disagreement, especially when it comes to cases of impeachment. Though hopefully, by providing more and more information, we can at least begin to formulate more educated opinions around the matter.