Trump is manifestly guilty of the biggest political crime in modern American history: inciting a terrorist attack on the First Branch to stop it from enacting the Constitutional transfer of power. The impeachment trial has conclusively proven it, if you were still in any doubt, given that the insurrection played out live in the media before us all.
Yet Trump will almost certainly be acquitted by the Senate.
Certainly because the GOP is a violent cult feeding on the husk of a once-proud American political party. The Republican Party is dead, it’s just still walking around out of habit. About 40% of Republicans approved of the insurrection and now support the use of violence to achieve their political ends. This is a terminal condition for any political party; it is the seed of a terrorist organization.
But deeper than these obvious facts is a failure of our constitutional design and the very underpinning of our political system: the election of plenipotentiary political representatives for fixed terms. Representative government has proven a failure at safeguarding democracy and the rule of law.
Except for the roughly 10% of elected Republican officials who have upheld their oaths thus far by voting for impeachment and to allow the trial to move forward, the Congressional Republican caucus are putting their personal political interests above all else. They are not being irrational. Immoral? Certainly. But not irrational. They are rationally responding the the fundamental structure of representative government: representatives act primarily and fundamentally in their own self-interest, not the public interest.
That incentive misalignment is not a fluke in this particular situation, it is fundamental flaw in our political system. Representative government is government by the self-interest of the elected officials. Sure, there are some times when broader societal interests align with representatives’ fundamental self-interest, but that is by coincidence, not by design.
Political scientists Gilens and Page have conclusively demonstrated that Congress does not respond to public opinion on issues, it responds only to those who write the checks. The actions of Congress align quite well with the preferences of the wealthiest who actually finance campaigns.
People overlook the fact that this is not just an indictment of our current regime of campaign finance, it’s an indictment of representative government itself. Representatives only represent those who are best able to threaten their self-interest in obtaining another term in office: those who can cut off their financing. It is an obscenity that we widely acknowledge that elected officials frequently only find themselves free to listen to their better angels when they have decided not to seek re-election, yet seldom is that cited as an indictment of representative government as an institution. It is and it ought to be.
Oh, we might be able to more closely align representatives’ self-interest with that of the public and the nation through campaign finance reforms (if the Supreme Court allows it… which it likely will not…), but note that such reforms primarily aim at manipulating the SELF-INTEREST of representatives to align better with those who vote in elections, as opposed to those who pay for elections. But it is not possible to eliminate the primary motivation of self-interest from the heart of representative political governance.
Sure, you can point to the many exceptions of public spirited and excellent public servants in elected office, but it is not their election that gives them their motivation to serve the public interest. That motive comes from the values and ideals of those extraordinary people, not from the incentives of the position they hold. Indeed, holding office universally tests those elected to remain true to their idealistic mission in the face of relentless incentives to act otherwise. This is what lies at the heart of the truism that power corrupts.
And this is why impeachment is failing the nation now, and why it has so often failed as a political sanction against misconduct by an elected official, even against Trump’s misconduct that fundamentally attacked our Constitutional order. Contrary to the naive expectations of the Framers, factional loyalty and self-interest has proven more powerful than duty to the Constitution or fidelity to truth.
I wish I could say with confidence that Democrats would not act in the same shamelessly self-interested manner if the situation were reversed. I can’t do so with any confidence. At best, we might do better than the 10% or less of elected Republicans who have demonstrated an ability to put country first, thus far.
Impeachment has proven itself largely useless to check the abuse of power by our President. Lady justice stands naked and defenseless before the ravening mob. The elected representatives of the people have proven that they cannot be trusted to safeguard her honor. They can only be trusted to protect themselves by siding with the mob, and to exonerate the rapists of all responsibility. The rapist-in-chief has demonstrated the fundamental folly of entrusting so much power to any one elected representative and hoping for the best. We have merely been lucky until Trump. Luck is not a plan.
This episode of our history should prompt us to reconsider the fundamental assumptions we make about how political power is distributed through our electoral processes. We have seen that elected representatives’ primary allegiance is not to the law, to the public interest, or even to the survival of the nation, but to their own self-interest above all.
To fix this flaw in our political system we need to reimagine the way we use elections to assign, organize, and apply our citizens’ political power. We need more direct democracy, more participation, more deliberation, more real discussion, and more frequent and specific projection of political power into our governance.
Representative government’s flaws have been laid bare as a threat to the rule of law and democracy itself, and the disadvantages now clearly outweigh the advantages of the election of permanent and plenipotentiary representatives. Our system made sense for a society of mostly uneducated, immobile people using primitive communication technology in the 18th century; but it no longer makes sense for a highly educated, intensely mobile society with increasingly sophisticated communication technologies in the 21st century.
We must experiment with enacting reforms to the very foundations of how political power is expressed and enacted through our electoral process. We have the precedents and practices and social technologies that will allow us to move beyond the flaws of representative government and toward a more direct and more truly democratic political regime.
Let’s make the coming abomination of Trump’s acquittal serve as a prod to move beyond a democratic tradition consists merely in electing representatives who are governed primarily by their self interest, and toward a political system of direct and participatory democracy that more directly and faithfully enacts the will of America’s citizens. Our system of representative government is discredited and is held widely in contempt by America’s citizens: We can and must do better, or rule by the most violent will become the new normal.