Growing fights over executive power can mark an emerging regime cleavage in a democracy like ours. One side will hold that “democracy” means empowering the executive and freeing him or her from the strictures of legislative and judicial accountability (in other words, a hollow democracy, one in name only in which executive authority is bound only by the whims of those in power). The other will hold that democracy means strengthening other institutions in order to hold the executive branch to account.

This, in turn, creates a form of outbidding: Even if Democrats oppose an unfettered executive now, they will have every incentive to use whatever presidential powers are available to them when they do hold the White House. This has already begun to happen in the U.S. to some extent: Competition over an unconstrained executive branch, of course, motivated Republicans to oppose President Barack Obama, who also capitalized on the long-term increase in executive authority in the United States. The academic term for this sort of seesaw electoral politics is “democratic careening.” Politics becomes no longer about who delivers the best policy or who best represents voters’ ideals, but rather who can control the executive and how far they can push the limits of the rule of law.

But what distinguishes the current moment under Trump from the normal, albeit worsening, politics of executive-legislative relations in the United States is the politicization of the very notion of executive constraint in the face of an impeachment hearing—this is the source of the regime cleavage.