While the chattering classes are atwitter over the pending Senate
impeachment trial of President Clinton, my impression is that among
ordinary Americans there's a lot more interest in the end of the
National Basketball Association lockout. And most sports writers assure
us that the whole NBA affair has been greeted mostly with yawns, even
among diehard sports fans.
When one form of entertainment is denied us, we can usually find
another. There are suggestions that in the absence of millionaires in
skivvies playing roundball on TV, some sports fans have not only found
solace in college hoops, football and hockey, but some have even gotten
outside or spent more time with their families. A few are even rumored
to have read a book, though most would deny it fiercely.
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Americans have a lot of choices as to how we will spend our time and
attention; indeed, most of us complain of too many demands on our time
and the difficulty of juggling our variegated responsibilities and
interests. And right now, few seem to be riveted to the ongoing soap
opera in Washington. That could change if the trial is televised and
continues for a while, but right now most Americans see it more as a
source of wry jokes than of serious concern.
Don't look for lamentations here. The fact -- all right, the
hypothesis -- that most Americans don't care much one way or another
about what is being billed as the gravest constitutional/political
event/crisis in our political system in more than a hundred years could
be viewed as a sign of health in the society at large. It suggests that
most Americans view political power struggles as of dubious relevance to
their own lives. And with certain caveats that's not a bad sign.
I know, I know. All the polls show that varying but large majorities
of Americans don't want to see President Clinton removed from office and
the news stories are full of tales of Republicans agonizing over whether
the voters will rise up and punish them if they are so bold (or foolish)
as to do so. But I don't detect much intensity on the issue outside the
Beltway -- well, maybe among the Hollywood and academic/cultural left.
The stock market has been chugging along throughout the whole
process, even setting record highs. Yes, it has fallen on a few days,
but the best evidence I can find suggests that it's been in response to
economic and investment-related developments, not to the impeachment
"crisis.'' People have been shopping, taking care of business, spending
time with their families, paying some attention to the news but mostly
treating the high political drama as background noise.
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There have been a couple of well-publicized anti-impeachment rallies
or ``speakouts'' (several of which have produced some deliciously absurd
quotes) in New York and Washington. But none of them have produced huge
crowds of angry ordinary citizens. Most of the intensity at the
grass-roots level seems to be on the pro-impeachment side.
Letters to my paper, the Orange County (CA) Register on the topic --
which have generally been heavily pro-impeachment but which we've never
claimed were representative of the public at large -- have actually
subsided in number lately.
In short, I have little reason to doubt that the polls showing
support for Clinton and opposition to impeachment are accurate, but I
doubt there's much enthusiasm or passion in those feelings. I suspect a
fairly substantial but still small (in percentage terms) number of
Americans very much want to see Clinton ousted, and a fairly substantial
but probably smaller number really hate the idea of an ouster, while the
vast majority aren't for removal if asked but are essentially
That could change, of course, and probably will as the trial picks up
steam and publicity. But a vast majority of Americans essentially
indifferent to what the chattering classes consider the gravest
challenge to the political system in a quarter-century or so -- more
interested in work, church, their childrens' performance in school, the
weather, whether Aunt Agatha will come to visit, or sports than in
politics? I view that as a sign of social health.