This morning I woke up and started listening to my Rachel Maddow podcast as I do most mornings. This particular show, she focused heavily on the surprising news that Sean Hannity had been revealed as Michael Cohen’s third client. I found this fascinating and spent my entire morning commute, about half an hour, thinking about what Cohen could have done for Hannity and what this meant for the future of Fox News, the Mueller investigation, and the Southern District of New York’s investigation into Michael Cohen.
When I arrived at school, I tried to spark a conversation about the newest revelation with a classmate. They hadn’t followed the story closely, and as I tried to explain to them the significance of this development, I realized that it wasn’t actually that meaningful.
As someone who has always been an avid consumer of U.S. political news, being abroad in today’s political climate has been an eye-opening experience. While in the U.S., every single New York Times update or Rachel Maddow opening monologue seems to be ground-breaking, but being abroad has allowed me to see how little impact these stories have on the world as a whole. As cliché as it may sound, being abroad has shown me that the political spats, about who said what when, or what the newest polling data says, are not nearly as important as they seem while you are in the States.
Now when I say “political news” I am not referring to policy actions. Obviously, U.S. policy is very relevant both domestically and abroad. The U.S. response to chemical weapons usage in Syria or implementation of tariffs have real-life implications for many people; what I am talking about is political drama. I am talking about the affairs, polling data, speculations, and tweets that appear on the front page of any news website.
More than ever, the news in the U.S. has been dominated by what I see as nothing more than political drama. It is filled with whatever horrible thing Trump tweeted last night or the newest speculation with regard to the special counsel’s investigation.
This phenomenon moves past the national government and Trump; it carries all the way down through the states as well. The only time I have read about the Iowa legislature in the past year is when the Senate Majority Leader had to resign due to an alleged affair with a lobbyist. I consider myself an avid consumer of news and I can tell you more about the approval rating of my governor than I can any of her policies.
News coverage and consumption is a zero-sum game. Every time an article is written about another one of Trump’s ridiculous tweets, someone isn’t covering a policy that is being approved by his cabinet. Every time I choose to read yet another article about the newest polling data, I am depriving myself of the ability to educate myself about the candidate’s actual policy positions. Although I cannot control what journalists are writing, I can control what I choose to read.
It is more important to focus on what elected officials are doing than what they are saying. I’ve discovered that this is much easier said than done. That one should focus on actions instead of words or policy is not a new idea to political observers but it is becoming more important in today’s political climate. I realize that I have to think harder about the choices I make when it comes to news consumption. Despite this internal acknowledgment of the stupidity of many political drama stories, I continue to consume them like I am reading about the newest Kardashian drama. It isn’t always easy to go past the front-page political stories, but seeking out different sources and doing your own searches can help you get a better view of the current political situation.
I have found that doing your own searches is a good way to move beyond the political drama. For example, if you read an article about how Trump feels threatened by the Mueller investigation, you could go on to search about what legislation different senators or representatives have proposed to protect Mueller and where your representatives stand on the issue.
Unfortunately, the current political drama is not a fictional TV show — it is reality. Actions taken by these officials are more important than just what they tweet on any given day. Moreover, there are both good and bad politicians out there that no one is covering at all.
Recognizing the difference between politics and policy is more important than ever in the current political climate. Policy will always be important in our lives, but politics is only as important as we make it. We cannot let ourselves get distracted from our real policy goals. Inevitably, political drama will work its way into our news consumption, but instead of reading it for the entertainment value, look at how this affects the policy actions they are taking. Instead of laughing at the fact that Scott Pruitt got an apartment for $50 a night in D.C. from a lobbyist’s wife, look into what Pruitt has done for liquid natural gas companies during his tenure at the E.P.A. What politicians say and what they do on their own time is important only in the way that it affects their concrete actions.