Why are the Democrats so reluctant to impeach Trump? There's a theory about that

A psychological theory may explain why so many Democrats are overly worried that impeaching Trump will backfire

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published May 31, 2019 1:50PM (EDT)

Nancy Pelosi; Jerry Nadler; Elijah Cummings (AP/Getty/Salon)
Nancy Pelosi; Jerry Nadler; Elijah Cummings (AP/Getty/Salon)

Why are House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats in Congress still dragging their feet on starting an impeachment inquiry on Donald Trump? On Wednesday, special counsel Robert Mueller held a short press conference in which he made it clear — even as the mainstream media feigned confusion — that he had assembled the evidence and it was time for Congress to act. Pelosi herself has been clear enough about what she believes, saying that Trump is "engaged in a cover-up" that "could be an impeachable offense."

Yet the speaker appears to be digging in her heels, claiming on Jimmy Kimmel's show Thursday night that "the president wants us to impeach him" because "he believes that he would be exonerated by the United States Senate." Pelosi did not rule out impeachment out, but it was clear that she feels it is somehow a better idea to change the topic to snoozy, go-nowhere issues like infrastructure.

Democrats are clearly afraid to start an impeachment inquiry because they're afraid it will backfire politically, even though support for impeachment is rising. In fact, history suggests that support will strengthen further if Democrats have the guts to push for it. Republicans also clearly believe impeachment will hurt them, which is why half of them are in a full-blown panic while concern-trolls of the right like Karl Rove and Marc Thiessen, who live to sabotage Democrats, keep offering disingenuous "advice" to Democrats not to impeach.

As many astute writers have noted, there's no real way to know how this will all play out. Yes, impeaching Trump, understanding full well that the Republican Senate will likely acquit him, is a risk. But it's also a risk not to impeach Trump, because it makes Democrats look triangulating and cowardly and makes it easier for Trump to continue to cover up and distort the facts. Why on earth, then, do Democrats feel more anxiety about the threat of impeachment than the very real threat of non-impeachment?

There's a concept in behavior psychology and economics that can help explain what's going on here: Loss aversion.

"Loss aversion is the theory that the pain of losing something is greater than the pleasure we feel by gaining something equivalent," Brendan Markey-Towler of the University of Queensland explained in a recent article at The Conversation.

The theory has been around since at least the 1970s, and it helps explain how most people assess risk. Basically, people fear loss more than they anticipate gain. The potential gain, in fact, often has to be twice as great as the potential loss before most people will be willing to take a gamble. So even when there's a chance of gaining something significant, such as exposing the full extent of Trump's criminality and corruption in an impeachment hearing, the fear of the risk — in this case the risk that it will backfire on Democrats politically — often resonates more than the hope of gain.

Loss aversion theory goes a long way towards explaining why, even though most voters hated the patchwork private insurance system of the pre-2010 era, it was so difficult for Democrats to pass the Affordable Care Act. Much of the public was so afraid of losing their health insurance plan — even if they disliked it — that they were reluctant even to consider changing the system, despite the anticipated rewards. This fear of loss, of course, was amplified by Republican scare tactics, making the risks seem higher than they were.

On the flip side, loss aversion is also why, now that the ACA is law, it has been so hard to repeal. People used to fear what they would lose to get the ACA. Now they fear losing it — rightfully, in this case, since Republicans have no intention of replacing it with something better.

A similar phenomenon is likely affecting Democrats, especially those who just ousted Republicans from their seats in 2018. They're so afraid of losing their seats, and their brand new House majority, that they're scared to make a move that could, if they play it right, gain Democrats even more power. Impeachment, as everyone who is being honest understands, is a high-risk/high-reward situation.

Even though there is a near-100% chance that the Republican-controlled Senate will refuse to convict Trump regardless of the evidence against him,  the potential for reward is high for Democrats. As Dan Pfeiffer at Crooked Media argued, impeachment hearings "may be the only way to wrest the microphone from Trump" and expose his corruption in a way that makes the American public finally understand the breadth and severity of the situation. Not only could that process irreparably damage Trump, but by forcing Republican senators in swing states to vote against convicting him, it could damage their chances of re-election. Crucially, it could be a big step toward restoring some of the ethical norms of conduct that Trump has smashed through with his shameless corruption.

The risk is also incredibly high, to be sure. There's a chance this could all backfire and Trump could effectively sell himself as a victim of a "deep state" conspiracy. Loss aversion theory helps explain why so many Democrats are more focused on the "risk" part of the equation than the "reward" part. Fear appears to be winning out over hope, at least for the moment.

The good news is that loss aversion isn't set in stone. Recent research shows that loss aversion isn't as strong or as constant a predictor of human decision-making as previously imagined, and that people can and will shift their focus towards hope and away from fear in the right circumstances.

We're already starting to see that shift happen. The number of Democrats — and now one Republican, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan — calling for impeachment is steadily growing, with 54 Democratic members of the House speaking out in favor of it. Democrats who once felt sure that their constituents were focused on "pocketbook issues" and didn't care about impeachment, are going home to face throngs of people asking why they haven't impeached Trump yet. And while Sen. Elizabeth Warren was first out of the gate, at least nine other Democratic presidential candidates have now joined the call.

What could help shift the Democrats even faster on this issue is the growing perception that there's a serious risk in not impeaching Trump. If the only real argument against impeachment is that it's (supposedly) politically unpopular, that's pretty bad optics. It makes Democrats as if they put short-term political considerations ahead of doing the right thing and puts them at odds with a base that is ever more worried about Trump's unchecked corruption and his push toward authoritarian rule. While the risk of backfire if they do impeach is real, the risk of looking like contemptible cowards if they don't is also very real.

Ultimately, the best argument for impeachment is this: Since no one knows how it's going to shake out, it's a waste of time and energy trying to game that out. Political calculation is useless, so Democrats might as well do the right thing. The right thing, when a president is as corrupt and shameless as Trump, is to start an impeachment inquiry.  What's the point of winning power, in the end, if you refuse to use it to take a stand?

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

MORE FROM Amanda Marcotte