President Trump has been raging for months against the impeachment inquiry, calling it an illegitimate coup, a witch hunt, a hoax and a scam to overthrow our democracy. These wild words aside, it’s worth asking whether going through with the constitutional impeachment process will further sap democratic norms. With partisan warfare unlikely to abate for years, it’s tempting to conclude that little good can come from this process.
The experience of other democracies, though, points to a different outcome: Impeachment often helps renew a democratic system.
In a recent investigation of presidential impeachment in other parts of the world, we found no case in the last 30 years where removal of a chief executive led to a significant erosion of democracy. Elections, basic rights, and the rule of law all survived and prospered. Impeachment, in many cases, acted as a checking function, one elections can’t play. It provided a “hard reset” when a political system had fallen into gridlock because of a lack of public confidence. Impeachment can also re-establish norms of good conduct for office-holders, deterring wrongdoing even if it is unsuccessful in removing a leader.
While presidential impeachment is often attempted around the world, it is rarely achieved. Between 1990 and 2018, we found 154 removal proposals by legislators in 63 democratic countries, lodged against some 144 different heads of state. Of these, only 10 succeeded.
In none of these 10 cases was there a significant decline in democracy’s quality according to widely accepted measures on electoral integrity and rights to speech and association. In fact, every country that removed a leader remained a full democracy afterward.
For instance, in Brazil in 2016, after a corruption scandal in her party, President Dilma Rousseff was removed on the grounds that she had illegally manipulated the federal budget — despite a lack of evidence that she herself was corrupt. In 2017, President Park Geun-hye of South Korea was toppled thanks to lurid revelations involving a fortune-telling confidante. In both Brazil and South Korea, impeachment was followed in short order by an election in which the president’s party was defeated.
Even when a vote to impeach does not lead to removal, democracy survives. Since impeachment is a regular part of the political process in some countries, this is perhaps fortunate. Ukrainian parliamentarians have made 25 proposals for impeachment since 1990. Brazil and the Philippines have had 11 and nine impeachment proposals, respectively. Each of these countries has removed at least one leader. Also since 1990, South Korea has had two full impeachments and one removal, but it remains by any standard a robust democracy.
Why does impeachment not destabilize democracy? We think there are three reasons.
First, presidential systems have an unhealthy built-in rigidity. Unlike prime ministers in parliamentary systems, presidents typically sit for fixed terms, even if they lose the confidence of political elites and the public. Impeachment injects a healthy dose of responsiveness to changing public views when popularity vanishes.
Both Rousseff and Park, for example, were experiencing severe crises of legitimacy. In part, these flowed from their own mismanagement. But they were also the result of economic crises and in Park’s case a ferry tragedy not directly related to her own actions. In both cases, the president’s ability to lead effectively was deeply compromised. Impeachment can address situations in which a president is unable to provide national leadership.
Second, impeachment is a far more effective check on modern pathologies of executive power than elections. In the United States, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East of late, presidents have made electoral gains by demonizing both outsiders and political opponents. Impeachment creates an alternative vehicle for checking the presidency in which the opposition has a greater and more immediate voice.
Once impeachment begins, most presidents are likely to refrain from the controversial behavior — be it outright corruption or subverting foreign policy for a political campaign — that precipitated the process. Indeed, the mere prospect of impeachment can change presidential behavior. A leader who perceives a real prospect of removal has an incentive not to demonize opponents. Of course, this is not a fail safe. A president can try to derail the impeachment process by amplifying attacks on political opponents and neutral law enforcement institutions. This danger, though, is an inevitable risk in any effort to tame a populist demagogue.
A third reason for impeachment’s positive effect is that in most constitutions, removal of the president is followed by a hard reboot of the political system. Rather than installing a vice president, most nations move forward with new elections after an impeachment. Much like votes of no confidence in parliamentary systems, impeachments that lead to elections can kick-start democratic public debate.
The U.S. Constitution does not follow this design, but instead installs the vice president (or, if unavailable, the speaker of the House) after impeachment and removal. But when an impeachment occurs close to an election as in the current case, the practical effect may be akin to a reboot. Voters will get a choice in 2020, including, perhaps, electing Trump again. Voters might choose to reject the Democrats’ decision to impeach or may bless it.
Past experience suggests that the party that brings an impeachment charge tends to win the next election, even if it is unable to remove the president. President Andrew Johnson in the U.S. and presidents in several other countries have survived impeachment proceedings, but none has ever gone on to win an election afterward and their parties tend to lose.
Many Republicans, echoing the Democrats during the Clinton impeachment, have called impeachment a grave threat to American democracy. But the experience of other countries doesn’t support this view. We’ve seen nothing undemocratic in form or effect in a legislative opposition seeking to oust an elected president. To the contrary, it is usually a sign of democratic vitality.
Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Huq are professors at the University of Chicago Law School and David Landau is a professor at Florida State University College of Law.