Institutt for sammenliknende politikk
CORE Lecture

CORE Lecture: Is There Such a Thing as an Impeachment Trap? (John Polga-Hecimovich)

John Polga-Hecimovich, Associate Professor of Political Science at the United States Naval Academy, will present possible explanations for the rise in impeachment attempts and trials in recent years.

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Impeachment has become more prevalent across presidential democracies in recent years. Since 1991, there have been 30 presidential impeachment trials, with ten removals, four resignations ahead of near-certain removals, and 16 cases of survival—as well as dozens of motions that never garnered sufficient votes to open a formal process. Further, the incidence of impeachment has increased over time, with more impeachment attempts in the 2010s and 2020s than in previous decades. At the same time, the geographical distribution of this process is segmented: while the use of impeachment has increased significantly in a subset of democracies, it has yet to be used in others. Existing explanations, which tend to focus on the conditions under which legislatures are successful at removing presidents, cannot account for either the rise in attempts or their concentration in certain countries.

In this paper, I propose two complementary explanations for these patterns: 1) the presence of acute governability crises, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic; and 2) the existence of an “impeachment trap”, by which the presence of one impeachment process is likely to result in the appearance of a subsequent one. Like a “coup trap”, I argue that the impeachment trap occurs for both structural and psychological reasons. To begin, if a presidential interruption fails to provide relief from underlying political, economic, and social problems, its further use becomes more likely. In addition, an impeachment trial may “break the seal” for politicians, laying out a roadmap for how the process works and helping them establish norms around how it will be used. This familiarity may also lead formerly hesitant lawmakers to incorporate it into their legislative toolkit, allowing them to wield it not just as a mechanism of accountability but as a political tool.

I test these explanations using an original database of presidential impeachment attempts across 30 countries from 1991-2023. Controlling for a bevy of social and economic indicators, prior impeachment trials exercise a positive effect on future impeachment attempts, with the magnitude of the effect decreasing over time. These results suggest that although presidential interruptions may preserve democratic regimes, they may also contribute to future instability.

The lecture is open for all interested. Welcome!