Big Questions As Impeachment Inquiry Heads Into Public Phase

Nov 10, 2019
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we'd like to take some time to reflect on why this political moment matters. And for this, I'm joined by Michael Sandel. He teaches political philosophy at Harvard University. His class, called Justice, is one of the most popular courses ever taught at the college, and it grapples with the big questions about democracy and what that word actually means.

Professor Sandel, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us as well.

MICHAEL SANDEL: Good to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: As I mentioned, we've been asking listeners for their questions about the impeachment process, the impeachment inquiry. And as they were coming in, we noticed that they fall into certain threads. And one of them was disgust with the political class as a whole on both sides of the aisle and the idea that this impeachment inquiry is political theater. So how would you address this idea among some that none of this matters or questions whether it matters? What would you say?

SANDEL: Impeachment has always been a political process. But there used to be a difference which most everybody recognized between ordinary politics and constitutional politics, which is what impeachment originally was about. That difference has disappeared. It's been swallowed up by the intense partisanship that we see today. And this is why I think we see the parties so dug in and the public so disillusioned with the impeachment process as it unfolds.

MARTIN: Does it matter that the process itself is seen as clean and fair? One of the listeners wrote to us and said, I wish to be guaranteed that this impeachment is following all the correct ins and outs of our Constitution. I hear from Republican friends that that isn't so, et cetera. How would you respond to that?

SANDEL: It is important that the process be seen as fair. I think once the impeachment hearings are public, people will be able to judge for themselves the fairness of the proceedings, and I think that issue will begin to fade - which does not necessarily mean that people who are dug into their partisan positions will change their minds. I think one of the misfortunes of our current political moment is that politics has essentially ceased to be about persuasion, about reasoning with one another with the possibility of changing our minds. There is very little changing of mind that goes on in politics these days. That's going to make this impeachment process very difficult.

MARTIN: If that's the case, then why do it? You've already noted, as a number of people have noted, that this is a rather sort of poisonous atmosphere politically - for political discourse. Is there any benefit in your view, as a person who takes the long view, of going through this process, even if it just - it serves really to inflame already existing passions?

SANDEL: Well, I would put it this way. An impeachment process should ideally be an exercise in civic education. It's about the Constitution. It's about constitutional norms. It's about the responsibilities of public office holders. So it is, of course, a political process. But it's one that should be about trying to educate the public - not only about the charges against the president, but also about the meaning of the Constitution. It has to be able to rise above the specific details of the offenses. It has to connect those offenses and misdeeds with what the Constitution is all about, what the separation of powers is about.

The Democrats can do that, and they may make some contribution to civic education. They may or may not succeed in removing this President from office. But I hope it will be an occasion to discuss bigger questions than whether people like or dislike Trump, bigger even than the specific charges about what went on in Ukraine - to be about something bigger about constitutional norms. And maybe - maybe - this can be an occasion for the kind of elevating public discourse that for the most part is hard to come by these days.

MARTIN: That was Michael Sandel. He's a professor of political philosophy at Harvard. His BBC series "The Public Philosopher" explores the philosophical ideas behind the headlines.

Professor Sandel, thank you so much for joining us.

SANDEL: Thank you.

MARTIN: We will be covering the first public hearings live on Wednesday, so we hope you will tune in to NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.