With the controversy heating up over whether to impeach Donald Trump, I decided to search my bookshelves for my volume of essays by the great German sociologist Max Weber. A century ago, Weber formulated a classic statement of the tension between principle and pragmatism, between ends and means, in politics.  The politician or political activist, according to Weber, can look to two different signposts for ethical guidance, which he called the ethic of ultimate ends and the ethic of responsibility.

In an ethic of ultimate ends, purity of intentions is paramount. The political actor does what he considers to be right regardless of the consequences of his actions.  “If an action of good intent leads to bad results, then, in the actor’s eyes, not he but the world, or the stupidity of other men, or God’s will who made them thus, is responsible for the evil.”  An ethic of responsibility, on the other hand, mandates that the actor consider the foreseeable consequences of his actions. High-principled, well-intentioned behavior doesn’t cut it if it leads to bad results.  It’s pretty clear that in making this distinction Weber was primarily concerned with warning against the dangers of an irresponsible fixation on ultimate ends, but he seems to view the tension between the two ethics as necessary and good. He frowns on pragmatism unmoored by principle.

Weber could be writing today about the politics of impeachment.  In my mind there is no question in principle that Congress should initiate impeachment hearings and that the inevitable, proper outcome of that process would be Trump’s impeachment by the House of Representatives. A failure to impeach would compound the historic failure of our political system to prevent the accession to power of a lawless, corrupt and dangerous administration. But what would come of impeachment proceedings?  We know that the Senate would acquit Trump of all charges, but that’s not the point. The point is that an impeachment process could actually help Trump get re-elected. The latest polls I’ve seen show that a solid majority of Americans oppose impeachment, and a narrower but still solid majority even opposes holding impeachment hearings. So the right thing to do—Trump’s impeachment—might actually be the wrong thing if we consider, as we must, the consequences of that course of action.

It is therefore incumbent on the Democrats to watch the polls as they consider the impeachment option. They need to build a case that shifts public opinion significantly in their direction.  There are no absolutes here. Impeachment is such a moral imperative that I could support it even if the polls seemed to suggest risk that it would produce some pro-Trump backlash. But I am willing to tolerate only so much risk: if it seems likely that an impeachment process would even marginally help Trump in a probably close election, I would oppose it. Failure to impeach would be an evil, but extending Trump’s presidency would be a greater evil. Which is why I think principled arguments like this one (“For House Speaker Nancy Pelosi…political calculus continues to take precedence over the rule of law.”) are myopic.

Pelosi said it without saying it.  Pressed on whether her reluctance to impeach reflected political considerations, she denied it:

This isn’t about politics at all.  It’s about patriotism.  It’s about the strength we need to have to see things through.”

But what “strength” can she be talking about?  Political strength, of course, based on popular support, which can only be measured by the polls. So yes, It’s all about politics, crass politics. Poll-watching by politicians is generally not viewed as an admirable habit, but in this case, attention to the polls is morally necessary.





  1. Richard Pious May 22, 2019 at 8:37 pm

    I think you are exactly right on how to weigh the risks and benefits here. Weber was, as usual, making excellent distinctions in helping us to think things through.

  2. Jeremy A Graham May 22, 2019 at 9:08 pm

    I think what we’re seeing is a top-down paradigm. Pelosi is saying it isn’t strategic to impeach and some democrats are believing her. So it comes down to Pelosi and her ilk protecting Trump. There is no question that he is guilty of crimes and if he were not the president he would be indicted. Pelosi could save the world tremendous suffering by impeaching now, but she isn’t going to. I’ve heard that Pelosi says that Trump wants to get impeached. That is logic befitting the characters in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Its like saying Carlsen actually likes to get checkmated. We’ve gotten used to believing almost anything.

    • tonygreco May 22, 2019 at 10:21 pm

      My view is that so far the Democrats are getting it just about right. They deny it, but they are pursuing an impeachment process in all but name. That is the politically smart way to do it.

  3. Ted Arrington May 22, 2019 at 10:51 pm

    In terms of whether starting an official impeachment inquiry is “smart” perhaps those opposed are putting too much emphasis on the Clinton experience. I am trying to remember what happened to Nixon’s popularity and the approval of impeachment proceedings as the House began official impeachment hearings. I think Nixon tanked and support for impeachment went up. So we have N=2, and they point in different directions. But the Senate hearings had already plowed the Watergate ground pretty well by that time as had the WAPO. So, indeed, unofficial impeachment hearings may be the way to go this time.

  4. Jeffrey Herrmann May 23, 2019 at 1:35 am

    Weber’s distinction reminds me of something I once heard Chomsky say in a discussion of political tactics: we should chose to employ do-good tactics over feel-good tactics.
    At this time, commencing impeachment proceedings would be a feel-good tactic but not a do-good tactic. The polls show Hair Twittler at a rock solid 42% approval, and given our anti-democratic Electoral College, an energized 42% can win the White House. Impeachment would be energizing, but of the wrong people.
    It would be irresponsible to indulge ourselves in a virtue-signalling impeachment proceeding only to hand Hair Twittler a second term. It would be far better to continue the pursuit of more and more evidence of tRump’s corruption and the betrayal of his own base, all in the hope of turning some of his base against him.

  5. William E. Jackson Jr. May 23, 2019 at 11:10 am

    “Failure to impeach would be an evil, but extending Trump’s presidency would be a greater evil.”

    Failure to impeach (indict) will prove to be a great evil, when one considers all the tricks Trump is bound to try to get re-elected in 2020. Even he does not know to what lengths he–and his Attorney General–are willing to go to stay in power; and, in the process, destroy our democracy. Violations of posse comitatus in the streets; foreign adventures; suspension of habeas corpus?

    House Judiciary must hold impeachment hearings, in 2019, vote out 2-3 articles of impeachment, and count on parallel developments in the courts.

    Under the Constitution, no institution — including the Justice Department — can stand in the way of the House drawing up articles of impeachment for the purpose of indicting the president for “high crimes.” It is the one way to indict a president while in office.

    Then it would be up to the Senate to decide to hold a trial, if Trump has not resigned — as Richard Nixon did in August 1974.

  6. Ronald Bleier May 23, 2019 at 4:15 pm

    Well said — about the “myopic,” “principled” advocates of impechment.

    My quibble is with your (apparent) characterization of the word “politics,” –as if it’s a dirty word.
    Politics to me means the struggle for power. Is that a dirty occupation? So many of my heroes, Lincoln, Malcolm X, MLK, JFK, RFK were politicians. The trouble is, after LBJ and Allen Dulles murdered JFK, a vacuum was created, and the bad guys have since been wielding the power. Let’s see if we can trade in one terrible guy for someone less terrible. Impeachment is a political process. As you say, the point is to stay focused on regaining the power.

    • tonygreco May 23, 2019 at 5:56 pm

      I will happily clarify: I think politics is a perfectly good word. I used the phrase “crass politics” ironically

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