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.