In the first 195 years of our Republic, only one president was impeached. In the last 45 years we would have had two impeachments but for a presidential resignation with a third looming. Two of our last three presidents were elected with only a minority of the popular vote.
We must not be sanguine about these facts. Along with other indicators, such as very low popular approval ratings for Congress, are they troubling signs of a declining legitimacy for our national political institutions with serious implications for our future?
To be sure, this nation has overcome severe challenges to its core institutions in the past, including slavery, Civil War, Depression, two world wars and a cold war. What should be done this time to restore confidence in the strength and integrity of these vital national institutions? Fortunately, we are a resilient, resourceful people living in the most prosperous and powerful nation in history. But remedies and restoration of public trust will not be easy, simple or quick. Following are a few suggestions.
(1) Do not rely on impeachment and removal to save us.
The founding fathers intended to make impeachment and removal difficult, and they succeeded. Even when fully justified, it becomes a heavily politicized process and likely to leave both sides resentful and unconvinced.
(2) Do not rely on the federal government (or any government) to solve our most difficult social, religious and cultural issues.
Government can play only a very limited role in resolving such searingly divisive issues as abortion, the role of religion in public life and sexual preferences and practices. But those issues, so inherently difficult to resolve in any comprehensive and definitive sense, can do great damage to our trust in government.
(3) Do not rely on a narrow range of news media and political commentators for the truth. Be especially critical of social media.
There are always multiple sides to any story. Thoughtful citizens should search, scrutinize and challenge them.
(4) Do not cynically reject all opposing politicians and all politics.
Too many citizens dismiss political corruption on the grounds that “they all do it.” No, they all do not. Politicians certainly can be dishonest and deceitful, but many others realize it is a noble calling and strive to live up to high moral and ethical standards. Yet it will certainly be a self-fulfilling prophecy if we allow politicians to satisfy only our lowest expectations. Demand such traits as intelligence, courage, consistency and honesty, and you are far more likely to get them.
(5) Support political leaders who demonstrate an understanding of the value of diversity.
We are a great nation because we are a diverse nation. We are many peoples, many nationalities, many races, many religions who have united as one people. These are not platitudes; they are truisms.
(6) Support political leaders who are intellectually rigorous and flexible and not ideologically rigid.
Whether the issue is tax reform, economic development, healthcare or environmental protection, we must not succumb to simplistic solutions that satisfy ideological criteria. We must demand solutions based on history, science and rational, empirical analysis.
(7) Support Congress resuming its role as a strong and effective branch of government that is coequal to the president.
This would go a very long way toward restoring credibility and legitimacy to both the legislative and executive branches of our national government.