Checks Unbalanced: The Importance of Character

At a time when an authoritarian demagogue is ascending to power, it is comforting to believe that his capacity for malfeasance will be restrained by the checks and balances constitutionally built into our representative democracy. Alas, on closer inspection, it becomes increasingly obvious that those checks and balances ultimately rely upon a system-wide sense of honor and integrity that is tragically waning as the 21st century unfolds.

Consider, for example, a president who appoints a son-in-law as a senior advisor, violating anti-nepotism laws. It would be difficult for this illegal action to be corrected by the courts, because a person or an organization would have to first have standing to sue, which would require demonstrating that they were directly harmed by the illegal activity. Even if a legal case were successful, the strongest possible judgment would be that said son-in-law would have to be discharged from service with no substantial penalty for the president apart from the indignity of having been found doing something illegal. Notably, without a sense of honor and integrity, such shame would not register in the president. The only body capable of enacting meaningful consequences on the president is the house of representatives, who alone have the power to impeach a president, who then must also be tried and convicted by the senate in order to be removed from office.

However, if the house of representatives is controlled by the same party as the president, then the house has a strong disincentive to impeach the president. Political scientists generally agree that the central goal of every elected official is to get reelected, which means that representatives have to keep their respective electorate in mind when making decisions about political behavior, including whether or not to impeach a president. When the house is controlled by the same party as the president, it is likely that members of the electorate who voted for members of the majority party also voted for the president. If the president has high favorability among a given representative’s electorate, that representative has a disincentive from acting against the president for fear of angering the voters they need to keep them in office. Even if the president does not have high favorability, representatives may be hesitant to act against a president whose policies their electorate favors in spite of any illegal activity the president may undertake.

The moral of the story is that the functioning of the system at the top, i.e. the holding accountable of top elected officials, depends upon the honor and integrity of the electorate. If the electorate becomes convinced that the character of a leader is unimportant as long as they enact the right policies, then voters are effectively disempowering their representatives from holding one another accountable, as the system of checks and balances is designed to do. This empowers authoritarianism, demagoguery, and kleptocracy. The popular preference for policy over character is a long-term trend, but it is only in this most recent election that the threat of this popular trend to the whole democratic order becomes starkly visible.