As impeachment dominates the headlines, many social studies teachers are assigning it as a topic of discussion and analysis in their classrooms. That is appropriate. Since students and their families are already discussing impeachment, it is a great “hook” for teaching about the US Constitution and the media.
Students should learn how to analyze the issues of the day, and impeachment is a leading current example. If young people learn to make sense of impeachment—to understand the rules and institutions, select reliable news sources, and assess diverse opinions—they will be able to process current events for years to come.
The impeachment debate is also an opportunity for discussion in
classrooms. A moderated conversation can model respect for facts and
alternative views much better than the polarized and often superficial debates
in the national media. As such, it can impart skills and values that are in
scarce supply today.
On the other hand, the immense attention given to impeachment reflects
deficits in our civic life. Although impeachment may be one good topic of
discussion in a social studies classroom, it should not be allowed to dominate
or convey the impression that all politics is like impeachment.
Many Americans perceive politics as being a struggle between powerful
politicians in Washington, DC. Impeachment is a perfect example of this kind of
Local and state-level journalism is near collapse; about half
as many people work in newspaper newsrooms today as in 2008. But the national
news media still draws huge audiences, particularly for commentary on
national issues. Impeachment is just the kind of issue that plays best on cable
Americans identify strongly with political parties and often seem
to act like fans of one party against the other. Impeachment is polarized on
partisan lines, with almost all Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed.
National political leaders increasingly resemble celebrities—none
more so than the current president, who was a celebrity for forty years before
he ran for office. He is at the heart of the impeachment case.
Finally, the issues that draw the most attention are often the
ones that give ordinary citizens the least to do. Impeachment is
basically a matter for 535 members of Congress and the President and his staff.
For everyone else, impeachment might be one factor that influences their vote
in 2020, but most voters have already made up their minds for or against Donald
My Tufts political science colleague Eitan Hersh describes “political hobbyism” as “consuming and participating in politics by obsessive news-following …, by feeling the need to offer a hot take for each daily political flare-up, by emoting and arguing and debating.” He cites survey evidence that political hobbyism is extremely common, consuming two hours of every day for millions of Americans. Impeachment is a perfect issue for political hobbyists: every day’s headlines offer new fodder for opinions and emotions, but there is little actually to do. I would add that political hobbyists love to forecast elections and predict the results of today’s news, not to change the results by organizing. (I know this from personal experience, having some unfortunate hobbyist habits myself.)
The factors that make impeachment the dominant news story
today—partisan polarization, a national storyline, celebrities, limited
expectations for citizens, and appeal to political hobbyists—also prevent other
issues from receiving the attention they deserve.
For example, last week, in the city where I live (Cambridge, MA), a
new council was elected. The main issue was affordable housing, which had
divided the previous council. This issue matters to students in Cambridge
schools. Some come from families that face rising rents and could be forced out
of town by gentrification; others could see their families’ wealth diminish if
more affordable housing is built. Reasonable people who care about affordable
housing disagree about the best solutions. The debate is heated and polarized, although
not partisan in a city dominated by Democrats.
Each vote really matters in this local election with 22
candidates and only about 20,000 voters (about 24% of adult citizens). And
there are other ways, apart from voting, for residents of all ages to influence
the city’s housing stock. People can volunteer to build homes with Habitat for
Humanity or bike to work instead of driving to address the parking shortage.
Yet the Cambridge council election received little coverage. No
one has published an analysis of the impact of the recent election on the main
issue, affordable housing. Even if social studies teachers in Cambridge Public
School wanted to focus on the council election and the issues at stake, there
would be no professional journalism they could assign as readings.
With these considerations in mind, I would make the following
Social studies teachers should address impeachment, if only
because teenagers will discuss it anyway, and students should be challenged to
apply rigorous thinking and reliable information. But impeachment should not be
the only issue they discuss during this academic year. It would be wise also to
select other issues that are more local or otherwise offer more for students to
do. These issues may also be less polarized or less partisan than impeachment.
While discussing impeachment, teachers should raise not only
detailed issues about rules and processes in the US Congress but also broader
and deeper questions: What is the rule of law? Why is power separated among
branches of government? What does “due process” mean in a criminal trial, and should
similar norms apply in impeachment?
An issue that interests me is the role of judgment in politics.
Impeachment is not the straightforward application of law, because the Framers
intentionally gave Congress the power to decide what should count as a “high
crime or misdemeanor.” Cynics would say that if impeachment is not determined
by law, then it is simply an exercise of power by partisan politicians, who
will demonstrate bias and vote according to their political self-interest. But
can responsible politicians exercise judgment (as opposed to bias), and what
does that look like?
Impeachment is an opportunity to understand the intentional design
of the US Constitution and the principles that undergird it, such as separation
of powers. Studying impeachment may therefore increase appreciation for the
Constitution. At the same time, an intellectually serious study of impeachment
raises critical questions about our founding documents. What should we conclude
from the fact that no president has ever been impeached in the House and
convicted in the Senate? Or the fact that the last president to be impeached,
Bill Clinton, saw his popularity rise and paid no tangible price? Is
More generally, are checks and balances working now that the
parties are fully polarized, with no conservative Southern Democrats or liberal
northeastern Republicans ready to vote with the other party? The Framers
objected to the very idea of parties and might have expected a polarized
two-party system to destroy their design. As the late Juan José Linz of
no other system with a separately elected president and legislature has
survived when the branches belong to different parties. Are we heading for
Finally, impeachment is a topic for deliberative discussion in
classrooms that can impart worthy values and skills. But whether and how it works
for deliberation may depend on context.
Given the deep polarization of the American public, students in
some classrooms may hold unanimous opinions either for or against impeachment.
In those cases, teachers should introduce alternative perspectives through
readings and other sources. One goal is to break down stereotypes about the
other side in the national debate. Liberal students should understand that not
all opponents of impeaching President Trump are his enthusiastic supporters; some
have concerns about the process. And conservative students should learn that some
proponents of impeachment are conservatives who are concerned about the rule of
In other classrooms, opinion may be split, and then it is
important to create a context for thoughtful, respectful
discussion—deliberation more than debate. As national leaders model
point-scoring, name-calling, blatant partisanship and self-interest, selective
application of facts and principles, and mutual disrespect, we should expect
more from our students.