The art of simplicity: communicating impeachment

When delegates gathered at the Philadelphia constitutional convention in 1787, most of them agreed that creating a tool to impeach the President of the United States was warranted.

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For these men, the likes of which included Alexander Hamilton, George Washington and James Madison, holding the President to account had obvious merit.

It was not lost on them that, for all the promise their new system held, humans are fundamentally flawed beings. Occasionally things would go wrong.

But it was not a tool they wanted to be used lightly.

As Hamilton noted in an essay in The Federalist Papers, the founders feared that it may be used as a political weapon, and were wary of the damage it could potentially do.

In his essay ‘The Powers of the Senate Continued’, Hamilton wrote, ‘‘The prosecution of them will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused. In many cases it will connect itself with the pre-existing factions, and will enlist all their animosities, partialities, influence, and interest on one side or on the other…there will always be the greatest danger that the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt’’.

Hamilton’s comments, viewed through the lens of America’s current political climate, are as relevant today as they’ve ever been.

Polarisation has come to define U.S. politics, and the degree of emotional response that Democrats and Republicans have often sought to evoke in the American public over the last 10 years is testament to how binary political debate has become across the pond.

As a result, the President’s approval rating has remained more or less the same throughout a rollercoaster of scandals.

If the Democrats are going to have any chance of moving the dial on impeachment with potential swing voters, they will know that they have to make their case as simple, digestible and compelling as possible.

Make no mistake, the President will almost certainly be acquitted.

It has become clear that the vast majority of Republicans do not believe the President has committed an offence worthy of impeachment, and even the most optimistic Democrats will admit they face an uphill battle to achieve the two-thirds majority vote required to convict the President.

As such, the political manoeuvring over the past 18 months has only really been about one thing: the 2020 Presidential Election.

So with more media coverage and speculation than ever before, how are the Democrats sharpening their public case? And how are Republicans mounting a credible defence of the President?

Each party has adopted a very different strategy to win voter support, but there is one distinct similarity: simplicity. 

When communicating highly complex issues, it stands to reason that the side with the simplest message is often the most successful in terms of having their message understood.

Impeachment inquiries are not straightforward, and readers can easily get bogged down in the quagmire of allegations, verbal sparring and misinformation being ubiquitously spouted.

As such, both political parties have been banging the drums for their respective causes, boiling their argument down into easily digestible soundbites that, they hope, will influence and mould public opinion.

For the Democrats, President Trump committed an impeachable offense and must be held to account for his actions (be that in the Senate or the voting booths).

For the Republicans, the inquiry is part of a biased witch hunt against President Trump that stretches all the way back to the election.

This explains why Speaker Pelosi, and her entourage of Democrats, have attempted to maintain a relatively neutral tone in their communications so far, ensuring their statements and responses remain as fact-based and free from partisan comment as possible.

In such a hostile environment, and given that the audience base is already deeply divided, this approach will gain more traction with moderates than overtly political attacks.

Democrats will be aware that even the slightest hint of bias plays into Trump’s own media narrative; that this inquiry is merely an extension of the long-running campaign against him by the opposition.

The Democrats need to convince the public that their impeachment effort is not being driven by partisan politics, but by loyalty to the constitution.

President Trump (and the Republicans that support him), has adopted a different approach, more suited to the argument he has pushed since winning the election in 2016.

The President has gone hard on questioning the political intent behind the origins of the inquiry (a similar tactic to the one he took against Mueller), and has argued that that the establishment is trying to delegitimise his Presidency.

Since the public phase of the inquiry started, he’s made comments on the character of the witnesses that have been interviewed (including through social media), and has sought to distance himself from individuals that might compromise his defence.

Unlike the Democrats, he is not trying to sound neutral, because it does not play into the image he has been cultivating for himself since 2016; that he’s fighting his corner on behalf of his people.

For both parties, the art is conveying their argument in the simplest way possible without providing the opposing party with further ammunition.

Whether this proves effective for either side remains to be seen.

The Democrats would do well to remember that, so far, it’s the simplicity of their approach and their (relative) neutrality that’s been their biggest strength.

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