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Tracing The Roots Of A Partisan Impeachment

President Trump leaves the White House for a campaign trip to Battle Creek, Mich., on Wednesday. This week, he became just the third president in American history to be impeached.
Manuel Balce Ceneta
President Trump leaves the White House for a campaign trip to Battle Creek, Mich., on Wednesday. This week, he became just the third president in American history to be impeached.

President Trump was impeached Wednesday night on two articles of impeachment — one for abuse of power, the other for obstruction of Congress. And they both got more votes than either of the other two impeachments in American history.

But it was also partisan — zero Republicans broke ranks, and only two Democrats voted against the abuse of power article and three voted against the obstruction of Congress charge. One independent, a former Republican, voted in favor of Trump's impeachment on both counts.

That's not what happened 20 years ago when former President Clinton was impeached, or in 1974 when Congress was close to impeaching Nixon.

In 1998, a handful of Democrats crossed the aisle to vote for Clinton's impeachment, and dozens of Republicans voted againsttwo of the articles of impeachment against him, sinking them. Twenty-four years before that, it was Republicans who pressured Richard Nixon to resignfrom office before the House could impeach him. Can anyone even imagine that happening with today's Republican Party and President Trump?

American politics has arrived at a remarkable place. The country and its leaders are growing more partisan, fewer people are persuadable in elections, and Republicans and Democrats view each other with an increasingly nastier edge. Americans are surrounding themselves with people who look like, agree with and even pray like them — a sorting that's changing the countryand ripping at the fabric of what it means to be American.

There are a lot of reasons why America now has this degree of partisanship, from partisan redistricting and a lack of moderate participation in primaries to a lack of leadership and the fracturing and siloing of how and where Americans get their news. Maybe it's no surprise that Democrats and Republicans can't even agree on who started it — and certainly don't agree on the solutions.

Times have changed

In 1998, two of the four articles of impeachment against Clinton were defeated — and it was because of Republicans. Eighty-one Republicans voted against the abuse of power article, and 28 voted against a civil perjury charge.

Back then, 31 Democrats voted in favor of the formal process to begin an impeachment inquiry into Clinton. No Republicans voted to begin the impeachment inquiry into Trump.

The mere fact that two of the impeachment articles against Clinton were defeated is stunning. Fearing a backlash in their own party, no House speaker today would likely bring something, especially of this magnitude, to the floor for a full House vote that wouldn't pass.

Despite weeks of public hearings in the Trump impeachment, GOP voters' views only hardened. Before the hearings, 91% of Republicans were opposed, according to NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist polling. After them, it was 93%.

So what has happened in America, and how did we get to this level of polarization?

There are fewer swing districts

In 2010, during President Obama's first term, and after the controversial health care bill passed, there were more than 100 congressional seats up for grabs.

The number of competitive districts, though, plummeted after redistricting, which takes place every 10 years. In most states, parties control the process, and they redraw boundaries for their own gain, sometimes with wildly shaped districts.

In 2010, Republicans controlled more state governments and bent lots of districts in their direction. They created far more right-of-center districts — and representation — than voting would indicate.

That was the same year that saw the rise of the Tea Party. Its acerbic disdain for elites, Democrats and, specifically, President Obama, rewrote the script for the Republican Party, changed it — and made it possible for someone like Trump to win the presidency.

In 2014 and 2016, there were only about three dozen competitive House seats. In 2018, due largely to President Trump's historic unpopularity in the suburbs, especially with women, Democrats made significant inroads. But that was in spite of redistricting.

Democrats picked up a net of 40 seats — and control of the House — in the last election. Forty seats is a lot, but it still only represents 9% of the U.S. House.

Avoiding competitive primaries

The Republicans in the House are the ones who are left.

They are in districts that are more conservative than the last Congress overall. Thirty Democrats are in districts President Trump won. Just three Republicans are in districts won by Hillary Clintonin 2016, and one of them has already announced his retirement.

Rather than be on the ballot with Trump in 2020, almost two dozen Republicanshave announced their retirements. Just nine Democrats have. With that context, it's not surprising that more Republicans have not come out against Trump.

Challenge Trump, and he'll likely call you out by name (and probably with a demeaning nickname on Twitter), landing you potentially in a competitive primary. And that means trouble in a district Trump won.

A competitive primary would cost lots of money and effort and possibly your job. So, with the overwhelming majority of congressional representatives in safe districts, the incentive is to avoid these kinds of inter-party conflicts.

Lack of moderate participation in primaries

Many point to the partisan primary process as part of the problem. The theory is that closed primaries, ones in which only Democrats or Republicans can vote, produce partisan candidates.

But a Princeton University political scientist, Nolan McCarty, told NPR in 2013 that he'd found no evidence for that.

He studied various open primaries around the country — primaries where independents could participate, and Republicans or Democrats could cross over — and found little to no difference in the kinds of partisan candidates who won.

The problem, McCarty said, is that moderate voters were less likely to actually come out and vote in the primary. Low-turnout primaries have become dominated by polarized activists.

"[C]rossover voters rarely determine the outcome of an election," political scientists Eric McGhee, Seth Masket, Boris Shor, Steven Rogers and McCarty wrote in a study published in the American Journal of Political Science in 2014. "If crossover voters are not pivotal, they cannot force a candidate toward the center of the spectrum."

Leadership matters

There are other, perhaps more important factors, like the message the political parties and their leaders are putting out. In other words, leadership matters. And there is lots of finger-pointing to go around.

The name that continues to come up as the single person who bears the most blame is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. McKay Coppins wrote in The Atlantic in 2018 that Gingrich "pioneered a style of partisan combat—replete with name-calling, conspiracy theories, and strategic obstructionism—that poisoned America's political culture and plunged Washington into permanent dysfunction."

A 2013 Brookings study, in fact, traced back the origin of modern partisan unity in Congress, directly to the 104th Congress — 1995 and 1996. That happens to be the Congress that saw the swearing in of Gingrich as speaker after the "Republican Revolution" he led that put the GOP in charge of the House for the first time in 40 years.

Pew has also shown how partisan ideological splits have widenedsince the election of 1994. Some conservatives, however, point to the way Democrats in the majority treated Republicans in the 1970s after Watergate as sowing the seeds of GOP resentment.

"Democrats were actually the original inventors of procedural tricks and stubborn sleight-of-hands that conventional wisdom now blames the Gingrich coalition for," wrote Madeline Osburn at The Federalist.

Republicans have also smarted at the blocked Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork in 1987. That was an event that led Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell to exact revenge on Democrats decades later.

Record use of the filibuster

Sen. Harry Reid, then Democratic majority leader, left, speaks with GOP leader Mitch McConnell in 2014. They sparred in the Senate, and many point to their leadership for an increase in partisanship.
Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Imag
CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Imag
Sen. Harry Reid, then Democratic majority leader, left, speaks with GOP leader Mitch McConnell in 2014. They sparred in the Senate, and many point to their leadership for an increase in partisanship.

Former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid increased the use of the filibuster while Democrats were in the minority in the latter part of the George W. Bush presidency.

McConnell, when Republicans were in the minority during the Obama years, then put its use on steroids. McConnell blocked judicial nominee after judicial nominee, filing a record number of cloture motions. Cloture ends debate in the Senate, and that takes 60 votes. If 60 votes cannot be achieved, legislation cannot move forward.

McConnell was almost daring Reid to get rid of the rule requiring 60 votes to end a filibuster for federal judgeships. Reid took the bait and eliminated the rule in 2013 with McConnell threatening that he could do worse when he was in the majority.

And he did. Republicans took back the Senate in 2014; McConnell blocked Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland, refusing to even hold a hearing for a judge who had been overwhelmingly approved for the second-highest court in the country; and then, after Trump won the presidency, McConnell eliminated the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees.

That led to Trump getting through two Supreme Court picks, changing the ideological bent of the court to a majority-conservative court.

Jet fumes

Some also blame the advent of the airplane for the partisanship among lawmakers.

Many of them used to eat and drink together before having to fly back to their home states on weekends. The argument is that they just don't have time to get to know each other anymore.

How much that really mattered is unclear and returning those "good old days" is likely impossible with media saturation.

As Nathan Gonzales of Inside Elections wrote in 2014: "Hanging around D.C. is likely to increase their electoral vulnerability, either in a primary or a general election."

Growing American acrimony and values splits

It's not just lawmakers, though, who have grown more partisan.

"We have two camps with fundamentally different views of justice, the role of government, and identity politics — and each camp sends representatives to D.C. to fight for their side," The Federalist's Osburn wrote. "It seems Congress will not be to able find a middle ground until their voters do."

There is lots of evidence to suggest Americans themselves have gotten more partisan:

-Many don't want their child marrying outside their party, far more than those who don't approve of interracial marriage.

-Democrats and Republicans value different ways of life – Republicans prefer living in bigger houses that are farther apart from each other and where schools and shopping aren't necessarily nearby. Democrats want the opposite.

-They have increasingly cold feelings toward each other, think the other is "closed-minded" and "too extreme" and that their policies are "harmful for the country."

-Democrats and Republicans couldn't be further apart on the issues, and those gaps are getting wider on the role of government, race and immigration.

-And perhaps most concerning for democracy is more than three-quartersof people in both parties say they can't agree on basic facts.

Where you get your news matters

News headlines scroll above the Fox News studios in the News Corporation headquarters building in New York in 2017.
Richard Drew / AP
News headlines scroll above the Fox News studios in the News Corporation headquarters building in New York in 2017.

The inability to agree on basic facts was highlighted in the public impeachment hearings when Republicans and Democrats couldn't even agree on interpretation of Trump's words in his July 25th phone conversation with Ukrainian President Zelenskiy.

Of course, a major factor on those basic facts is where people get their news.

At the tail end of that 104th Congress that Brookings identifies as the beginning of ideological hardening in Congress, Fox News was created in 1996.

Fox gave conservatives the kind of megaphone they hadn't had before on television. Soon, Fox was topping cable-news ratings, capitalizing on a culture that felt overlooked and now dominates with conservatives. As NBC's First Read asked recently, "Would Richard Nixon have resigned from office in 1974 if there had been a Fox News back then?"

Arguably, Fox News' creation kicked off a kind-of à la carte ingestion of news and information that served to reinforce previously held beliefs. That trend would only be exacerbated by the Internet and social media.

In 2003, MSNBC launched Keith Olbermann's show. Olbermann was fueled by antipathy toward President George W. Bush and the Iraq war and became a huge ratings success. By 2008, prime-time MSNBC had become something of an ideological counterweight to Fox News.

Now, where people get their news is as much of a tell-tale sign as almost anything else. Last month's NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, for example, found 53% of Americans approved of the House congressional impeachment inquiry.

But breaking that support down by outlets people said they regularly consumed is revealing — 72% of those who watched MSNBC or CNN said they approved of impeachment; just 30% of Fox News viewers did. It was a similar story for Trump's impeachment and removal. Overall, 49% said they supported it, including 70% of MSNBC watchers and just 29% of Fox News viewers.

The bottom line is Americans are increasingly living in two different realities. They're living in different places, consuming different information and sending to Washington leaders who are more than happy to reinforce that division — so long as they get reelected.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.