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Tocqueville’s Fears about Impeachment

Alexis de Tocqueville (WikiMedia)

Ivanka Trump tweeted what she took to be a quotation from Alexis de Tocqueville: “A decline of public morals in the United States will probably be marked by the abuse of the power of impeachment as a means of crushing political adversaries or ejecting them from office.” Her probable source for the alleged quotation was a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed by David Rivkin Jr. and Elizabeth Price Foley. (I commented on that op-ed but did not remark on the reference to Tocqueville.) The words didn’t sound like Tocqueville to me, so I googled a bit (as did Yoni Appelbaum, among others). A few conclusions:

— Tocqueville didn’t write those words in 1835; Judge John Innes Clark Hare did in 1899, paraphrasing Tocqueville. But Rivkin, Foley, and Trump got the gist of the actual Tocqueville comment. Here’s one translation of it: “By preventing political tribunals from inflicting judicial punishments the Americans seem to have eluded the worst consequences of legislative tyranny, rather than tyranny itself; and I am not sure that political jurisdiction, 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 republics begin to degenerate it will be easy to verify the truth of this observation, by remarking whether the number of political impeachments augments.”

— Tocqueville’s argument is different from, and incompatible with, the argument that Trump defenders are making. He worries that impeachment in the U.S. will be prone to abuse because the Constitution gives Congress (and state constitutions give state legislatures) wide latitude to remove executives from office, which is pretty much the reverse of the Rivkin/Foley argument. He worries that abuse will be more likely, too, because Congress can impeach and remove a president without penalizing him in other ways: It’s the lightness of the result that makes it too easy to use. Trump’s defenders have been more apt to say impeachment should not be used because it’s a “political death penalty.”

— Tocqueville, often prescient, thankfully does not seem to be so here. It seems to me that we could have, and arguably have had, quite a lot of political degeneration without seeing any rise in impeachments. And the features that he thought would make impeachment too easy have led to the departure from office of only one president in American history.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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