At the beginning of my second semester of college, two-and-a-half years ago, I was tasked with writing a piece for The Record on Donald Trump’s second impeachment.Brimming with the excitement of writing my first news article and eager to do well, I modeled it off what I’d read in national newspapers. I wrote about the lead-up to the insurrection, the political aftermath, stuck a quote from President Stoltzfus’ campus-wide email in the last paragraph and sent it off to my editor.
My first draft was too national-focused — we moved up Becky’s quote to the second paragraph, and my editor asked me to get a quote from history professor Philipp Gollner on the significance of a second presidential impeachment. I was hoping for a pithy response incriminating the former president, and maybe with a couple of sound-bite-styled one-liners. I got this instead, and am reprinting here (with permission):
“I’m quite ambivalent about the impeachment, and don’t have a brief quote. [Clinton, Bush, Obama and now Biden have] promised to ‘repair the breach’ in a divided country … and yet here we are, shrieking and snarking and distrustful, our emotional well-being dependent on the outcome of a political horse race. This is not an insignificant moment by any means, but I’m increasingly convinced that my neighbor who drives a forklift at Lippert is more important to me than Joe Biden. And that politics aren’t supposed to be this bloody important.”
So, we didn’t use this quote for the article. I was initially miffed that he didn’t give me the concise quote I needed to slot right into my story, but we published it without any professor quotes.
Looking back, I think his words are truer than I realized. Although they didn’t fit for the article I was writing, the sentiment is an uncomfortably precise critique of the way I sometimes engage with politics and journalism.
In fact, I’ve been wondering if we might not have a duty to be up-to-date on the news. Yes, this comes from a newspaper editor troubled by the decline of local journalism and rising disagreement on facts such as who won an election, but my concern here comes from the outsized importance we place on the national news and politicians.
It’s often seen as a virtue to be well-read on politics — friends apologize for not knowing the recent scandal across the country or what some senator recently said — but to what end is that knowledge helpful?
I’m a strong advocate of the news as a means to connect people, learn about global issues or expose wrongdoing — I think it’s our duty as humans to learn more. But when I fall into the trap of hate-reading, righteous anger at political rivals or endless scrolling of what the president said, I’m not sure it serves a noble purpose.
If you only read about politics once a week, I don’t think it’s a dereliction of your duty as a citizen. If you know your mayor’s name but not the current Senate majority leader, I don’t think you need to study up. And if the four Trump indictments are starting to blur together, I don’t think you should be worried about civic illiteracy.
The political sphere should be a means to an end — the through point for governmental change, rather than the focal point.
Let’s focus more on policies than politics, more on our neighbor than the president, and more on curiosity and connecting than scrolling and schadenfreude.