Not All Impeachments Are the Same
Why is public opinion different with this impeachment inquiry?
Posted Oct 29, 2019
This past week, 55 percent of voters approved of the current impeachment inquiry, the highest rate polled to date. With the House of Representatives in the midst of an impeachment inquiry, we look to history for insight and background on presidential impeachment. Although there are very few, it is logical to look at the most recent case, that of Bill Clinton.
Immediately we see a distinct difference. Initial public opinion has shifted quickly to support the impeachment of Trump while it was much slower for Clinton. Likely this is due to the question of relatability. Can we relate to the behaviors of each president? Do we see ourselves in them, walk in their shoes? Empathic insight is what makes the impeachment effort of today different than the one of 1998.
The overwhelming majority of people in this country have never and will never be as powerful as the president of the United States. Walking in the shoes of someone like the president is difficult. However, the acts committed are not necessarily out of the average person’s range of experience. Clinton’s transgressions were personal, and then public because he got caught and lied. He was a philanderer, he had sexual relations with a younger woman while married. The statistics that are available show that behavior is shared by as many as one in four adults (and given the secretive nature of the act, that is likely an undercount).1
Infidelity is considered one of the key reasons that couples divorce2 and that reason often comes out in the messy proceedings, adding public awareness to the behavior. Include the spouse who might be on the being-lied-to end of this affair and then finds out, and that increases the portion of adults in this country who can personally relate to the behavior and impact of acts of infidelity. What about the people who have been faced with making choices about such an opportunity but not necessarily acting on it? Or those who have been the third person in this situation? That makes the portion of the adult population who could personally relate to what happened between Bill and Hillary Clinton in 1998 very high. I remember at the time a lot of people thinking back to their own experiences, and although they did not approve of what Bill Clinton did, they found there were pieces of his behavior that hit close to home, that they could relate to and therefore were conflicted about. Empathy research tells us that if we can see ourselves in others we can better relate to them and share their feelings.3
The actions taken by Donald Trump are not as easy to share. Having enough power to control hundreds of millions of dollars and use that money to influence the workings of a foreign government for personal gain may be understandable, but it is not a behavior people can relate to. When it comes to moral judgment, we tend to be easier on ourselves and those who are like us. Research shows us that we are tougher on judging right from wrong when the behavior is more distant from our own behavior and done by people outside our in-group.4
The circumstances for Bill Clinton in 1998 were not the same as for Donald Trump today. The why for impeachment then, although disturbing, was something familiar to people, infidelity. The why for impeachment today, powerful political deal-making, is not something many people personally relate to. That lack of connection makes all the difference in how impeachment is viewed now compared to twenty-one years ago.
Donald Trump relies on his followers relating to him, feeling a personal connection. It will be interesting to see if that relatability gets lost when the action taken is so far removed from the experience of most people. Will the numbers favoring impeachment continue to go up? Or can Donald Trump reframe what he did as something average people can see as part of their own life experiences? He may be able to, but it will take a lot of creativity to make an average person understand what it's like to have hundreds of millions of dollars in your hands to get foreign leaders to do you a favor.
I suspect if Donald Trump cannot get people to relate, the impeachment numbers will continue to go up.
Institute for Family Studies (2018) https://ifstudies.org/blog/who-cheats-more-the-demographics-of-cheating-in-america
Fincham, F.D. & May, R.W. (2017). Infidelity in romantic relationships. Current Opinion in Psychology. 13:70–74.
Amato, P. R., & Rogers, S. J. (1997). A longitudinal study of marital problems and subsequent divorce. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 59, 612– 624.
Jones, J.M. (2008, March 25). Most Americans not willing to forgive unfaithful spouse. Gallup News. https://news.gallup.com/poll/105682/Most-Americans-Willing-Forgive-Unfaithful-Spouse.aspx?g_source=infidelity&g_medium=search&g_campaign=tiles
Eres, R., & Molenberghs, P. (2013). The influence of group membership on the neural correlates involved in empathy. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7, article 176, 1–6.
Gutsell, J. N., & Inzlicht, M. (2012). Intergroup differences in the sharing of emotive states: Neural evidence of an empathy gap. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 7 (5), 596–603.
O’Brien, E., & Ellsworth, P. C. (2012). More than skin deep: Visceral states are not projected onto dissimilar others. Psychological Science, 23 (4), 391–396.
Valdesolo, P. & DeSteno, D. (2007) Moral Hypocrisy: Social Groups and the Flexibility of Virtue. Psychological Science Vol. 18, No. 8, pp. 689-690.