In the wake of the impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, the international left has been calling her impeachment “undemocratic.”
A typical example comes from the left-wing think tank called the Council on Hemispheric Affairs:
Rousseff’s impeachment is a devastating blow to Brazil’s democracy, constituting a “soft coup”—an undemocratic process of regime change tainted by political malfeasance, selective justice, and a non-electoral transfer of power cloaked in the guise of the rule of law.
In this way of thinking, the actions of elected executives constitute democratically-approved actions, but — for some strange reason — the actions of elected representative legislative bodies do not. Thus, by this logic, when Richard Nixon was impeached and forced from office, this constituted a “soft coup” in which an “undemocratic process of regime change” was a devastating blow to American democracy. Taking this to its logical conclusion, we are forced to conclude that while Nixon was democratically elected — in a landslide, mind you —the elected Congress that harassed him until he resigned was somehow acting against democratic ideals.
Does Winning 51% of the Vote Mean Presidents Can Do Whatever They Want?
The arguments proffered by the advocates of the “soft coup” thesis are so murky as to leave one wondering when a democratically-elected body is democratic and when one is not.
Indeed, in Brazil, the Senate is popularly elected, and designed to provide representation for each of Brazil’s 26 states. Additionally, 71 percent (367 of 513 members) of the democratically-elected lower house, known as the Chamber of Deputies, voted to advance the cause of impeachment. One could take issue with the exact manner the Senate or House of Deputies is elected, just as some Americans want to abolish the US Senate or reform the House for being insufficiently representative.
But, in both the Nixon and the Rousseff case, it’s hard to see how the executive is more democratic than the legislative body that removed him or her. Indeed, the US Senate is elected in statewide elections in each of the 50 states. The US president is elected by a series of statewide elections in each of the 50 states (plus some small territories and districts). So, which is more democratically legitimate? The candidates selected by the voters in each of the states? Or the candidate selected by voters in each of the states? This is what we call “six of one, half a dozen of the other.” We might also note that the Senate cannot even vote to remove a president unless authorized by the democratically-elected House of Representatives.
Moreover, in the case of the US, in no election since Reagan’s 58% blowout in 1984 has any president received more than 54 percent of the popular vote. In fact, much of the time (including 1992, 1996, and 2000) the winner received less than 50 percent of the vote, meaning more than half the voters voted against the winner.
Were those presidents to be impeached by the House of Representatives and removed by the Senate, on what grounds would opponents of the impeachment claim this was an act that thwarted the will of the majority?
Moreover, just because a plurality supported that candidate on election day doesn’t mean those people supported him on the day he was impeached. Does an election in November 2012 then count as the immutable and mystical will of the majority indefinitely? What if the House of Representatives — the body designed by the authors of the Constitution to be the more representative body — contains a majority of representatives opposed to the agenda of the sitting president? Wouldn’t that better represent the will of the majority?
Similarly in Brazil, Dilma Rousseff managed to eke out a win with 51 percent of the vote in 2014. At the time, the economy was performing fairly well. Nevertheless, nearly half of the voters voted against her.
But why should the voters be forced to be locked into their opinion years after the election took place? Hypothetically: if a majority of the voters asked their representatives in the Senate to remove Rousseff, and the Senators did so, would that constitute a “devastating blow” to democracy?
Of course, what exactly the voters wanted from the Senate when it impeached is an empirical question we may never know the answer to. At the same time, it would be absurd to claim that the impeachment is necessarily “anti-democratic” simply because the president managed to win slightly more than half the votes two years ago.
The UK Has Un-Elected Chief Executives
On the flip side, we might also say that the Brazilian senate selected the new president Michel Temer, since the Senate took actions which it knew would lead to a Temer presidency.
So, is there anything anti-democratic about an elected legislature selecting a chief executive?
To find a recent case of a legislature choosing a chief executive, we need look no further than the United Kingdom which presently has a Prime Minister that was not elected as PM in any election. Theresa May, Prime Minister of the UK government, was selected to be Prime Minster by her political party. No ordinary British voter cast a vote for May in any race to become Prime Minister, just as no ordinary British voter ever checked a box that elected Tony Blair, John Major or Margaret Thatcher as PM. The only voters who did vote for those Prime Ministers where the voters in their local districts who voted for the person merely as their representative MP. The PM position itself is filled by the members of parliament from the majority party, or the majority coalition. This is called “parliamentary democracy.” Numerous other countries use similar systems.
Now that Brits currently are subjected to a Prime Minister for whom they have not voted, is the United Kingdom in the midst of a constitutional crisis? Has democracy been dealt a crushing blow there? There surely are some critics of the UK’s political system who might argue yes, but virtually no one would go so far as to claim that the parliamentary system in the UK is undemocratic. Indeed, most observers would say that the UK system is one of the wold’s primary models for democracy.
Needless to say, the left argues that the Rousseff impeachment is undemocratic because the left dislikes the outcome. This is why no one ever hears any leftist bemoan the way the Democrats struck a malicious blow against American democracy when they forced Richard Nixon out of office. It’s certainly likely that one can come up with a reasonable argument against Rousseff’s impeachment, but arguing against it on grounds that it’s “undemocratic” requires a truly bizarre and selective view of what constitutes democracy.