WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 21: The U.S. Capitol is shown at dusk.(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
More than once, readers have written in, or people have stopped me, to complain about their fellow Americans’ ignorance of the basic functions of government.
Incandescent with anger, they’ll complain that, while their neighbors don’t know the name of their local member of Congress, they can absolutely tell you what happened on the latest episode of “The Real Housewives of Ulan Bator” or wherever it’s now filming.
The answer, as constant as the northern star, is that the kids need to be sent back to civics class.
These complaints, while smacking of Old Man Yells at Cloud, aren’t without some grounding in statistical fact.
In a May 2019 American Bar Association Survey, just about 49 percent of Americans could correctly identify U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, The Hill, a publication that covers Congress, reported at the time. Other respondents thought Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Clarence Thomas were chief justice.
And just 44 percent knew that flag-burning was a constitutionally protected form of free speech. A further 38 percent of respondents knew that the U.S. Constitution, along with federal laws and treaties, was the final word on law in the United States, the Hill also reported.
So for all those armchair Howard Zinns lamenting the state of their fellow Americans’ political knowledge, allow me to humbly submit that the ultimate crash course in civics is unfolding in real-time, right now, on your television screens, courtesy of the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.
Putting aside your feelings about the personalities involved — and there is no shortage of opinions there — we’re undeniably living through a historic moment. Whether you believe him innocent or guilty, Trump is just the third president in the nation’s at times glorious, at times messy, history to stand trial in the United States Senate. That mere fact alone, makes it worthy of notice.
To watch the House managers, led by U.S Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and White House Chief Counsel Pat Cipollone go through their paces on the Senate floor is to be reminded of the high seriousness of the moment. Stripped of cable news play-by-play, the two attorneys are dueling for the hearts and minds of the 100 people arrayed before them who have been tasked with determining Trump’s ultimate fate.
The hours of debate over whether Democrats would be allowed to call witnesses was the legislative process in action. The parliamentary sparring between Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., are the backbone of our system.
And that’s why it’s so distressing to hear pundits on Fox News repeatedly tell viewers, as Vanity Fair notes, that impeachment is “too boring to watch.”
“If you watch some of it — there were snippets, and we’re showing you the good stuff — it was unbelievably boring,” Fox & Friends host Steve Doocy opined to viewers on Wednesday. “I don’t know how people can follow it.”
It’s hard to know whether Doocy and his fellow anchors in the Foxhole really think their viewers are morons, or are merely trying to offer political cover to a White House that finds itself on the defensive. There may be some of the former — but there is undoubtedly a heaping portion of the latter.
Either by happenstance or design, telling viewers that impeachment is too boring for them to trouble themselves with, the Fox anchors will drive down viewership of the live Senate proceedings among their audience, where Americans can decide for themselves who’s right and who’s wrong.
And into that information void, of course, steps soundbites, punditry and the bloviations of the Tweeter-in-Chief, whose relationship with the truth grows more abusive by the day. That’s no substitute for first-hand knowledge.
And here’s a newsflash: The impeachment proceedings are supposed to be boring. The Senate is governed by Byzantine operating rules. And floor debate, which has a rhetorical language and style all its own, is conducted under those Byzantine operating rules.
And so, while it may seem that Schiff and his colleagues are speaking in some dense, Chaucerian middle English, all it takes is a little careful listening to discern what they’re really trying to say. The same holds true for the opposing counsel.
I’ve covered court hearings and legislative debates for the best part of my working life, and I can tell you that the “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” moments are a Hollywood invention. And while courtrooms are full of real-life moments of drama, they very rarely resemble “Law & Order.”
The impeachment proceedings are not — and should not — be viewed as Must-See TV. To frame them that way infantilizes both the audience in the Senate and those watching at home. It’s the American democratic system at its purest form of expression.
Despite three years of plot twists from our reality show president, the drama unfolding in the Senate, however preordained (or not) its final result, is the one thing that Americans keep asking for: A front-row seat to history and the ultimate civics class.
It’ll be no one’s fault but our own if we fail the final.
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