The U.S. House of Representatives voted for an impeachment inquiry this week. Because the vote was along party lines, there are troubling signs that impeachment could lead the country in a dangerous direction.
According to Thomas Pepinsky, a Cornell University professor, impeachment may lead to “regime cleavage.” Regime cleavage happens when citizens disagree on the fundamentals of their government. For instance, Republicans may view impeachment as a legislative coup to remove a president Democrats don’t like, while Democrats may view it as Congress’ duty under the Consitution to remove a president who committed crimes.
Regime cleavage is dangerous because it questions a democratic body’s authority. The United States government is based on the idea of separation of powers between three branches: legislative, executive, and judicial. Each branch is supposed to act as a check on the others. Members of each branch are also supposed to respect the actions of the other branches if even when they disagree with them.
When voters or politicians view a branch of government as illegitimate, it threatens democracy. If the Supreme Court decides a law is unconstitutional, some people may view the decision as an attack on a president or political party, even though the court said the facts did not support the law. Instead of seeing the ruling as a policy dispute, partisans see it as a political attack on their side. Once enough voters and politicians adopt this mindset, each branch can turn into a tool to maintain a regime’s political power.
Regime cleavage is different than a political dispute. Democratic bodies can manage policy differences if opponents agree on the basics of government. In regime cleavage opponents view each other—not just their ideas—as illegitimate. The last time America experienced this was before the Civil War when the South wanted to leave the Union. The North and South viewed each other as bad actors who disagreed on the very nature of the republic.
Although impeachment may lead to regime cleavage, it doesn’t have to. Political actors in the White House, Congress, and Supreme Court could respect the rule of law and democratic procedures. However, if any side begins to act as if the other has no authority, impeachment could lead America toward unstable governments like many in Latin America, where factions assert their power and overthrow their leaders at will.