Monday, December 16, 2019

This Impeachment is Different

A surprisingly interesting piece, from Lawrence Lessig, at Politco, "This Impeachment Is Different—and More Dangerous":

The impeachment of Donald Trump will happen in a radically different media environment — again. (In Clinton’s impeachment, standing between Trump’s and Nixon’s, the effects were consistent but muted relative to today.) Polling persists, indeed it has expanded, and so politicians will know how the proceedings are playing among their own voters. But as information channels have multiplied, real “broadcast democracy”—the shared and broad engagement with a common set of facts—has disappeared. An abundance of choice means fewer focus on the news, and those who do are more engaged politically, and more partisan. No doubt, there is more published today about impeachment across a wide range of media than before, but it lives within different and smaller niches.

That division will have a profound effect on how this impeachment will matter to Americans. In short, it will matter differently depending on how those Americans come to understand reality. In a study published last month, the research institute PRRI found that 55 percent of “Republicans for whom Fox News is their primary news source say there is nothing Trump could do to lose their approval, compared to only 29 percent of Republicans who do not cite Fox News as their primary news source.” That 26-percentage-point difference is driven not just by politics but by the media source.

This means that as the story of impeachment develops, it will be understood differently across the network-based tribes of America. The correlation among conservatives and liberals alike that drove Nixon from the White House won’t be visible in 2020—because it won’t be there. Regardless of what happens, on one side, it will be justice delivered. On the other, justice denied.

That difference, in turn, will radically constrain the politicians who Americans have entrusted to render judgment on the president. The reality of Fox News Republicans will be persistently visible to red-state representatives. More idealistic, less inherently partisan senators, such as Ben Sasse of Nebraska, might have a view of the “right” thing in their heart of hearts, but they will be forced to choose between what they know and what they know their very distinctive voting public believes. So far, few have faced that choice with courage.

Though the president was wrong to invoke it in this context, the Civil War may well have been the last time we suffered a media environment like this. Then, it was censorship laws that kept the truths of the North separated from the truths of the South. And though there was no polling, the ultimate support for the war, at least as manifested initially, demonstrated to each of those separated publics a depth of tribal commitment that was as profound and as tragic as any in our history. That commitment, driven by those different realities, led America into the bloodiest war in its history.

We’re not going to war today. We are not separated by geography, and we’re not going to take machetes to our neighbors. But the environment of our culture today leaves us less able to work through fundamental differences than at any time in our past. Indeed, as difference drives hate, hate pays—at least the media companies and too many politicians...