The first day of Pres. Trump’s impeachment trial drew approximately 11 million viewers, which is slightly less than a third the number of viewers of an NFL playoff game the night before. Neither contest featured a scintilla of drama. No impartial viewer believes that the impeachment will deviate from a party line vote, just as nobody with any sense believed the Packers would win unless they slipped ipecac syrup in the 49ers’ PowerAde.
Yet the impeachment process drones on. How ironic that the president who promised to drain the swamp is now being buoyed by it! The only swamps he will drain are the real-life estuaries that developers want to turn into condos. (Through executive order, Pres. Trump has rolled back environmental regulations that protect waterways.)
The only people I’ve seen who can muster up real interest in the impeachment–other than the senators themselves–are ideologues on the left and the right. Voters don’t care because they’ve already formed opinions on the matter; they’ve weighed likely outcomes; they peer on with less interest than they would have in a schoolyard brawl.
Which brings us to the conundrum: how can we encourage voters to stay engaged? Years of free internet access to the news have spoiled us. We don’t want to shell out $10 a month for subscriptions to traditional news sources–sources that certainly had their flaws, but which hired journalists who theoretically knew the importance of keeping the news objective. Instead, we turn to social media and to news sites that give us what we want to hear. Free news comes at a terrible cost: we lose the ability to think critically when we insulate ourselves from uncomfortable truths.
Of course, the media is not the only institution that deserves blame for the lack of engagement on civic issues. Legislators who fail to toe the party line know the needs of their constituents will be ignored by party leadership down the road. So they toe the line. The concomitant gridlock in Washington encourages presidents to rule via executive order. Fingers get pointed. Words spill on the floor and in newsprint. Not much gets done.