Susan McWilliams Barndt is Chair and Professor of Politics at Pomona College.
On the one hand: I study American political thought and history. So I understand that impeachment is a big deal.
On the other hand: I’ve already lived through three impeachments. So I understand that impeachment is banal.
On the one hand: I don’t want to be glib because this may well be a moment of real significance in the history of the republic.
On the other hand: Been there, done that.
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When we’re talking about impeachment, here’s an underlying problem: Right now, it is hard for many Americans to recognize what actually is significant in our politics, as opposed to what feels significant in our politics.
For years, we’ve watched pundits and politicians put on their most solemn I’m-on-camera faces and declare that something-or-another could change everything, could solve all our problems, could end America as we know it, etc. Then we got on our computers and started saying the same kinds of things to each other.
It’s like we’re all in “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” but instead of it being one boy who’s lying to get attention, we’re all shrieking and crying at each other. Most of our shrieking turns out to be about nothing. Sometimes we probably see a wolf, but it slinks quietly past us, through the forest of our noise.
There are so many ways in which our current “ecosystem” – to use some trendy corporate slang that itself encourages us to mistake the artificial for the natural – puts all of us into a vortex that distorts our perspective, makes it hard to see what is significant, makes it hard to clarify our own thinking, and makes it hard to see outside ourselves.
I keep thinking about Narcissus, who stared into the glass of a pool like we stare into the glass of our phones. The key thing to remember about Narcissus is this: He doesn’t die because he is consciously self-obsessed. He dies because he thinks, in looking at his own reflection, that he’s seeing someone else.
Especially given the way that algorithmic feeds and search results reflect what we searched for or said in the past, how are we any different? We think, in looking at our own reflection, that we’re looking outside ourselves. It’s so easy, online, to see our own feelings about a thing – and to mistake those feelings for the thing itself.
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And here we are, living in a sprawling monster of a country which on its best days is still overwhelming and impersonal, with a long line at the DMV. No matter what Americans say about how every vote counts, it is really hard to believe in practice that one vote or one day or one person – even if the person is in a position of power – can jank up this massive system. It’s hard to attribute significance to individual acts or actors.
Lots of people believe that when Trump flies out of Washington, DC, this week, we can all take a deep breath and then get back to normal. Today I hear many echoes of what James Russell Lowell said in 1888: that the Constitution is a “machine that would go of itself” (a claim that Michael Kammen made the title of one of the best books ever written about American culture and the Constitution), a machine that will right the good ship once the bad captain departs.
Notice the last two paragraphs: One of the weird things about American politics is that expressions of alienation from the system are often indistinguishable from expressions of faith in the system. I can say that Trump won’t affect the long-term health of American politics because I believe that no individual can really make a dent in an impersonal and imperial system that is run by an elusive and elite class. (That’s me, being alienated.) It is possible for me to say the same thing because I believe that the constitutional order is so brilliantly devised that no single ruler can undo its grand design. (That’s me, having faith.)
In both cases, I tend to neglect the potential significance of individual actions and actors.
Part of what shocked so many Americans about the mobs that broke into the Congress earlier this month is that the individual decisions of individual humans in individual moments so clearly affected the history of the republic. (All hail, Eugene Goodman.) This in a country where we say to each other, all the time, that it is a land where the individual matters.
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Even beyond this impeachment, we as a nation will continue to be bedeviled by our confusion – some of it brought on by recent historical and technological developments, and some of it sewn into the fabric of the nation – about what is significant, and what is not significant, in our politics. Confronting that confusion may be a central challenge we have to face.
In the meantime, I – even with my learned cynicism about impeachment – will be watching the Senate.
(P.S. Anyone enamored of the idea that a good ship always outlasts a bad captain should read Moby-Dick).