“However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends,” George Washington said in his farewell address, given Sept. 17, 1796, “they are likely in the course of time and things to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
Today, we are seeing Washington’s prediction come true: the legacy of a cunning, ambitious and unprincipled former president who has worked to subvert the power of the people and pose a significant threat to democracy and its systems as we know them.
This is not the future the Founding Fathers envisioned for our nation. They completely omitted political parties in the Constitution, fearing the United States would meet the same fate as 17th-century England — bloody civil wars that ripped the country apart.
However, this did not stop early Americans from rallying behind either Thomas Jefferson or Alexander Hamilton after Washington had left office, creating the two-party system we’ve been stuck with ever since.
Political parties are a significant threat to democracy, as evidenced by Donald Trump’s recent second impeachment trial, where he faced a single charge: incitement of insurrection by encouraging his supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
On Feb. 13, the Senate voted 57–43 to acquit Trump, falling short of the necessary two-thirds vote necessary to convict. In a nation where two parties dominate politics, with each claiming about half of the population, reaching a two-thirds majority on an issue so partisan and divisive as impeachment may never happen.
Although it was the most bipartisan impeachment vote in U.S. history, with seven Republicans voting to convict along with all 50 Democrats, 43 GOP senators defended the former president despite overwhelming evidence that the attack was encouraged by Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud and his call to prevent Congress from verifying the votes that elected Joe Biden as 46th president of the United States.
The American people aren’t happy with the way the impeachment trial turned out. According to a poll released on Feb. 15 by ABC News/Ipsos, 77% of American adults believe senators voted based on partisan politics rather than facts.
Why did these same senators, who were among the targets of the insurrection, still defend the man whose name was emblazoned on the flags the insurrectionists waved as they violated one of our most sacred national institutions? The answer lies in the complicated issue of party loyalty.
One of the most interesting cases of loyalty to a fault can be found in Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who voted to acquit but still believes Trump is guilty. In his speech following the trial, he said, “There is no question, none, that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the event of that day.”
His rationale for voting to acquit is that he believes impeaching a former president is unconstitutional, a view many Republican officials claim to share. However, if that were the only factor at play, he and other GOP senators could have abstained from voting.
The New York Times presents an alternative explanation for his behavior. Reporters Carl Hulse and Nicholas Fandos point out that McConnell is effectively the reason the trial was delayed until after Trump had left office, refusing to call the Senate into session and claiming he didn’t want to rush the process.
This behavior isn’t exclusive to McConnell. Hulse and Fandos explain, “Most [Republican senators] privately acknowledge Mr. Trump was to blame,” yet they couldn’t bring themselves to risk offending Trump supporters within the Republican party and potentially lose re-election in 2022, which would hinder the chances of the GOP winning back the Senate.
The Times claims the excuse of unconstitutionality is just one of several justifications GOP senators cited as their reason to acquit: Trump’s language was merely typical of politicians, the timeline was too vague, the matter should instead be dealt with in criminal courts, Trump wasn’t the only one who contributed to the violence, Democrats were using impeachment as a ploy to attack the Republican party, they feared setting bad precedents.
In other words, the Republicans used various excuses to cover their own hypocrisy and cowardice when faced with the decision of whether they would put their party over truth and morality.
Utah Senator Mike Lee, like McConnell, used unconstitutionality to justify his vote to acquit. Conversely, our other senator, Mitt Romney, joined six other Republicans in voting to convict Trump. Romney was also the only GOP senator who voted to convict in Trump’s first impeachment trial back in early 2020.
In some states, like Louisiana and Nebraska, the GOP chose to censure senators who stood against Trump. That is not the case in Utah. On Feb. 15, the Utah GOP released a statement saying, “Our senators have both been criticized for their vote. The differences between our own Utah Republicans showcase a diversity of thought, in contrast to the danger of a party fixated on ‘unanimity of thought.’ There is power in our differences as a political party, and we look forward to each senator explaining their votes to the people of Utah.”
This is a step in the right direction. Instead of censuring leaders who dare to put their personal convictions over partisan politics, the Utah GOP is embracing diverse opinions, which is essential to the overall health of democracy.
But we still have a long way to go. “As strong as the indictment of Donald Trump, it is also an indictment of Republicans,” Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, said in the same Times article. “Neither has been convicted in a legal sense, but in a moral and political sense they have. How they can try to walk away and look the other way is beyond me.”