What’s the point of impeachment in hyper-polarized America?

trump stands in front of a flag with is hand on his heart

Because Congress and the public are locked in extreme partisan polarization, the impeachment process will not change many minds, according to a panel of experts. (Department of Defense photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley)

The moment is solemn, and the potential ramifications historic, as the U.S. House of Representatives considers articles of impeachment this week against President Donald Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. But for all its gravity, impeachment is likely to have little political impact, say experts from the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies (IGS).

Because Congress and the public are locked in extreme partisan polarization, the impeachment process will not change many minds, they said at a panel discussion Tuesday. Still, they concluded, impeachment may be a necessary exercise in accountability after other efforts to check the president’s actions have fallen short.

But in a hyper-polarized environment, even impeachment may lose its power to focus the nation and its institutions on accountability, said Eric Schickler, a professor of political science who studies Congress and the American political process.

The panel, the first event in the Robert T. Matsui Center for Politics and Public Service’s “Breaking News in Perspective” series, also featured Katie Merrill, founder and president The Merrill Strategy Group, a member of the IGS National Advisory Council and a consultant to the presidential campaign of Democrat Tom Steyer; and Mark DiCamillo, director of the Berkeley IGS Poll.

The forces of political identity

Just hours after two articles of impeachment were introduced in the House, Schickler’s presentation focused on how the structures put in place by the Founding Fathers are faring today. They envisioned a political system in which each of the three branches of government had mechanisms for checking overreach and abuses by the others, he said. But he and the other speakers argued that the political climate has changed so dramatically that even impeachment may not be effective.

“It is not clear that impeachment can play the role that the Framers expected in today’s polarized politics,” said Schickler, who also is interim co-director of IGS. “If institutions fail, elections may be the one remaining tool to hold individuals accountable.”

Trump (is) a very strong object of identification. Some see him as a hero, some as an enemy. And there is no information that is likely to change that.”

– Eric Schickler, Berkeley political science professor

During the presidency of Republican Richard Nixon, for example, the Watergate scandal brought a seismic shift in his support: Support for the president among Republicans and Southern Democrats collapsed as the scandal unfolded. Today, however, Schickler said, the forces that shape voters’ identity and anchor them in the political culture are converging to keep Trump’s support stable among Republicans.

Geography, religion, race — all of these combine with party affiliation into a sort of “mega-identity,” he explained. And that’s reinforced by the powerful gravity of partisan news media.

“There’s such a great distance between the sides,” he said. “The other side becomes an enemy, and you just can’t see giving them anything. That makes Trump a very strong object of identification. Some see him as a hero, some as an enemy. And there is no information that is likely to change that.”

Violating norms, transparently

As a master of breaking traditions and norms, “Trump is better than most politicians, because he does it in the open, he does it with glee,” Merrill said. “He’s right out there about who he is and what he’s going to do. For other people, that might be horrifying, whether you’re an institutionalist, a Democrat or an independent who believes democracy is something worth preserving.

“But,” she added, “the people wearing the ‘Make America Great Again’ hats, or the ‘Keep America Great’ hats, that’s what they want.”

Merrill put significant blame on the practitioners who shape mainstream political culture for helping to foster a climate of cynicism among voters. But that culture may now be called on to guide a correction: Assuming that the Senate declines to convict Trump and remove him from office, the last alternative for enforcing accountability may be the 2020 election.

Thus far, however, the evidence suggests California voters are not moved by the Ukraine scandal or the resulting impeachment inquiry, DiCamillo said.

A Berkeley IGS Poll conducted from Nov. 21 to 27 and released last week found that 30% of likely California voters in November are inclined to re-elect Trump — down just slightly from the 31.6% who voted for him in 2016. Similarly, 68% of the state’s registered voters in the new poll disapproved of Trump’s performance — up just two percentage points since December 2017.

Perhaps more important: While many are critical of Trump’s presidency, and half support his impeachment and removal from office, most registered voters are ready to move on.

In all, 33% said the House should focus more on impeachment. But far more — 54% — said the House should give more attention to other issues.

“Voters are getting a little impatient,” DiCamillo said. “They don’t want this to be long and drawn out. They want attention paid to the nation’s business.”