On January 7, 1999, William Jefferson Clinton, the 42nd president of the United States, became only the second sitting president in US history to be officially impeached. Prior to Clinton’s impeachment, the last (and only) president to be bequeathed with that distinction was Andrew Johnson, in 1868. (On August 4, 1974, President Richard Nixon resigned before he was officially impeached). The charges of perjury and obstruction of justice levied against Clinton stemmed from an extramarital affair with then-White House intern, Monica Lewinski. On February 12, 1999, the Senate deliberated President Bill Clinton’s fate. He was acquitted of both charges, apologized to the American people, and went on to complete a successful second term. (Andrew Johnson was also acquitted. Thus far in this country’s history, a sitting president has never been removed from office following impeachment.)
I vividly remember my whereabouts when the senate voted to exonerate Clinton. It was a few days before the annual Mardi Gras celebration; a collection of friends and I decided to travel from our respective colleges and meet in New Orleans to partake in the festivities. We watched the news unfold at an off-campus house near Tulane University.
Time seemingly stood still. Imagine, college students in the midst of America’s biggest party in The Big Easy suddenly ceased exchanging beads, beers, and DNA and watched the television intently, with a tinge of nervous energy. That day many Americans remember where they were and what they were doing. The entire nation was captivated by this important event, a seminal moment in American history as the president’s fate would soon be decided.
Fast Forward ~20 Years
On December 18, 2019, Donald Trump became the third president to be impeached. His trial is currently ongoing. As expected, political bigwigs from both parties have dug in their heels. News correspondents dutifully report on the day’s relevant events. And political junkies are glued to their device of choice to absorb as much up to the minute news that can permeate their brains. But for many, the default reaction to Trump’s impeachment has been a collective shrug of the shoulders. Indeed, the most remarkable aspect of President Trump’s impeachment proceedings, is how unremarkable the news is to most Americans.
Is the apathy surrounding Trump’s impeachment because Republicans hold a three-seat majority in the Senate; and that because a two-thirds majority is needed to convict (20 Republicans would have to cross party lines to secure a guilty verdict)? Amidst the backdrop of a bitterly partisan environment, the probability of that transpiring is zero. Trump is all but guaranteed acquittal. Worth noting, when Clinton was impeached, Republicans held a five-seat majority in the Senate and while the political environment was less partisan, lawmakers almost always voted along party lines. Clinton was all but guaranteed to be acquitted, too.
Why then, in contrast to when President Clinton was impeached, are most American citizens so blasé about Trump’s impeachment? At TQC, two possibilities come to mind.
We are not luddites and generally embrace the benefits of technology. In addition to computers, all the other devices at our disposal have made life more efficient, productive and democratic. Information flow is more symmetric, communication takes place with materially less friction, while goods and services are cheaper. But technology can also dull our senses and shorten our attention span, especially if we utilize too much of it, so much so that even major news events are downplayed in the collective consciousness. Since the new millennia, we have been bombarded with 24/7 alerts on our smart phones. This phenomenon has accelerated in conjunction with the widespread use of social media. The result: the historically-strong correlation between importance and attention appears to be breaking down.
Technology is a resource. Typically, when too much of any resource is consumed, the results are suboptimal. This applies in equal strength to technology. And increasingly, it has resulted in apathy as well as indifference to seemingly important events.
There are few other, broader reasons as to why Trump’s impeachment trial is being received with a collective yawn. We have become accustomed to witnessing deplorable behavior by elected officials and sometimes those close to them. Politicians have never been reliable role models. In fact, the second oldest profession in the world shares some direct similarities with the oldest profession in the world. That said, in the past there was at least a modicum of civil discourse that existed between public figures; this no longer seems to be the case. The level of depravity coupled with the endless number of traditional and social media outlets that magnify it translates to even the impeachment of a sitting president, no longer being looked at as an outlier. This is worrisome.
The New York Times conducted a nationwide survey on how Americans feel about Trump's impeachment. Political divisiveness is at record levels but has also been equally accompanied by a sense of indifference.
Might the 51st American “state” named Apathy be potentially dangerous? Democracy does not run on auto-pilot. If we stop interceding and taking an active interest in the functioning of our political system, over time, it will falter. A severely weakened democracy will not happen overnight. It will be a by-product of a gradual erosion of our institutions and constitution.
We are certainly weary and desensitized to the never-ending cycle of mini-political crises. But irrespective of political leanings, Americans should try and do a better job – us included - to take a more active role and vested interest to the goings on in Washington, D.C..