Madison's nightmare has come to America

Since the writing of the Constitution, three developments have substantially altered the effectiveness of impeachment as a check on presidential misconduct. The first is the rise of extreme partisanship, under which each party’s goal is frequently to vanquish the other and control as much of the federal government as possible. This aim is fundamentally incompatible with the system that James Madison designed, premised as it was on negotiation, compromise, and a variety of checking mechanisms to ensure that no branch or faction was beyond the reach of the Constitution or the law…

The second is the rise of the internet and social media, which has upended the information ecosystem that democracy needs to survive. Madison was one of many Framers who believed that the intricate system of checks and balances in the Constitution depended on the public’s growing interest in being informed about government. He wrote, “I go on this great republican principle, that the people will have virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom.” The proliferation of media outlets online enables people to consult news sources that hew to their opinions, but has not forced them to confront different opinions or search for any objective truth. This tendency, in turn, reinforces the extreme partisanship that pushes people back into their niche—and to so-called facts that are shaped by news sources rather than the events themselves.

The third development is the major change to the process for selecting senators. When the Framers created the Senate, they sought to insulate it from the vicissitudes of public opinion. To do so, they proposed that senators be selected by state legislators. This approach, however, rarely produced a Senate disposed to take the long view and to rise above petty partisanship. In 1913, the Seventeenth Amendment did away with the original scheme for selecting senators, and people have been voting directly for them ever since.