Impeachment rules on silence, tech can help free senators from their personal bias bubbles

I’ve become fascinated with the rules of President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, mostly the ones restricting the activities of the U.S. senators deciding the fate of our commander in chief:

Attend all proceedings. No speeches and no talking to your neighbor. Read only materials pertaining to the matter at hand. No cell phones or electronic devices; in fact, lock them in another room.

Basically, senators must sit quietly in their assigned seats and focus six days a week. Impeachment is giving us a much-needed lesson on the ills of screen time, talking too much and truancy. I may let my kids watch this after all.

The rule banning electronic devices is particularly intriguing. Over in the U.S. House, during the Judiciary Committee’s hearing to advance the Articles of Impeachment, Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) was caught watching golf on his tablet, a forgivable sin since Tiger Woods was playing and Democrats had long ago decided to impeach Trump. Like, before he was sworn in.

Pop your bubble

Removing cell phones from 100 people whose brains are constantly distracted by a steady stream of news clips and tweets that reinforce their existing worldview is a good idea. In fact, we all ought to try it. How much more efficient would our workplaces be if the chief justice of the United States were standing over our shoulder, prepared to smack our hands with a gavel if we so much as look at our Twitter app?

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts swears in senators for the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on Jan. 16, 2020, in the Capitol in Washington. (Photo: AP)

A great plague on our national public affairs is that we apparently can no longer stand to be confronted with information that challenges our personal bias. I see this affliction up close in the comments left on these columns and after my CNN appearances. While the creativity varies, they revolve around the same argument: Since this person said something I disagree with, he must be a liar and therefore should not be allowed to opine on a medium I might encounter.

I used to believe an epidemic of mistrust was plaguing American culture, but I am starting to think it goes deeper than that. Living in the world’s oldest and most successful democracy, how did we become so lazy as to rely upon “you are a liar” as our default political argument?

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I can assure you I am not lying. Mine is an authentic opinion built on facts and information as I have digested it, same, I presume, as any liberal commentator who appears on these pages or in the other talking head box. But that doesn’t necessarily make any of us liars. Gullible? Myopic? Insightful? Prescient? Maybe all four, from time to time. But to conclude that every pundit with whom you disagree is a liar is …something else.

We’ve made it too easy to filter out information and commentary that might cause our brains to work harder at politics. Hate Trump? You can cultivate a news feed delivering a steady information diet that makes you hate him even more. Love him? There’s a cable channel dedicated to making you love him more than you thought you ever could.

Political counterprogramming

What makes political counterprogramming so jarring to us is that we have no tolerance for it; technology and our splintered media ecosystem has put our precious brains in thick bubbles, creating a nation of snowflakes who melt when confronted with a differing view.

That’s why it’s a good thing the senators have had their phones and speaking privileges taken away. No doubt roughly 100 of them have already decided how they plan to vote, but confronting information that challenges their assumptions is, at a minimum, a good exercise for their brains. “Good therapy,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell jokingly called it.

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And it’s also why the Democratic posture on calling witnesses has been so disappointing. I don’t care if senators want to hear from witnesses (the outcome won’t change), but both sides must be allowed to bring people forward. For the Republicans, this means calling Joe and Hunter Biden, the whistleblower who started this and Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell leaves the Senate chamber Tuesday after criticizing the House Democrats' effort to impeach President Donald Trump. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite, AP)

When confronted with this possibility, most Democrats melt down and claim Republican witnesses are “not relevant,” a ridiculous position for people who spend a fair amount of time screeching about a “fair trial.” In what American courtroom would the prosecution be allowed to determine all the witnesses? Can Democrats not stand to hear from people who could burst their impeachment information bubble?

We must pop these corrosive bubbles liquifying our brains more than any mindless app ever could. Perhaps our senators will begin to show us the way with their impeachment rules, wherein the only candy they can crush will come from the desk of Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey.

Scott Jennings is a Republican adviser, CNN political contributor, and partner at RunSwitch Public Relations. This column originally appeared at the Louisville Courier Journal. Follow him on Twitter: @ScottJenningsKY

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