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Americans Are Sad About Politics. Who Could Blame Them?

Sometimes I wonder what I would be thinking about all day if I weren’t thinking all day about politics.

I sort of fell into this line of work. I wanted to write for a living and to live in a city where my friends were, which turned out to be Washington, D.C. I was less than happy working in a golf course conference room for a fledgling import-export company, living at home and pretty regularly sobbing alone in my bedroom. (It was post-crash America, and I’m decently confident that this scenario meant that I was better off than about 90 percent of recent college grads.) A guy I knew who worked at a political magazine maneuvered my résumé out of a pile, and a course was charted that has led me here, to 2019, where I think about politics all day, every day. I fantasize, occasionally, about becoming an archaeologist — I think I would like all the camping, plus the time spent in cool, musty museum labs with papyrus and pottery shards.

Up until recently, these fantasies of “something-else-besides-politics” were logical because it seemed like a lot of the country wasn’t very interested in politics. It made me feel sort of useless — who really read this stuff outside of D.C.? Was it making a difference? But now things are different — people are paying attention. Perhaps it’s because of President Trump — a 2017 Pew Research Center survey found that 52 percent of Americans said they were paying more attention to politics since his election. My colleague Geoffrey Skelley recently wrote about just how much attention likely Democratic primary voters were paying to the Democratic primary — a lot, it turns out. Forty-five percent of people in one survey done this year said they were paying “a lot” of attention to the campaign, compared with only 28 percent of people who said the same thing in a similarly-phrased poll question from 2015.

But to what end is that engagement? Last year, the Public Religion Research Institute found that 69 percent of Americans felt sad, angry or fearful when they thought about what’s going on in the country today. But only 19 percent of people had gotten in touch with an elected official in the last year, just 14 percent had volunteered and a paltry 12 percent had attended a community meeting, like a school board or city council meeting. For all the sadness some Americans feel, and for all our tuned in-ness to politics, we don’t seem to be doing much politically proactive day-to-day.

I write this not to name and shame America, but to identify with its ennui. It’s difficult not to talk day after day about the ups and downs of the election without pulling back every once in a while and wondering who all the talk and writing is for. A recent Gallup survey found that 68 percent of Americans aren’t proud of our country’s political system; according to a Pew survey from July, only 46 percent of people who say they have a generally high threshold of personal trust also say they have confidence in elected officials to act in the best interests of the public — that figure drops to 27 percent among people who express low levels of generalized trust. That’s abysmal, and they’re the kind of numbers that make a person think: If a lot of Americans have decided that they have no faith in the process, then why painstakingly chronicle it? Is political coverage in an age of disillusionment simply a self-contained symbiotic act? Are reporters like me just a little Egyptian plover bird in the crocodile’s jaw, picking at bits of food in its teeth to survive?

I’ll answer “no” for the sake of my job and because of an abiding belief that records of history must be kept — it’s probably some medieval Irish monk DNA at work. But there’s also no innate virtue in political engagement; I won’t plead with Americans to get “more political.” A friend of mine once said that she thought of journalism as helping people understand the world around them in a deeper way. It might just be that people understand American politics just fine — we have the numbers to show that they’re paying attention — it’s just that they don’t like what they see.

Disillusionment played a role in the last presidential election. Indifference, too. Trump and Hillary Clinton were historically unpopular candidates. Trump’s election was a shock in part because pre-election day polls and models were on shakier ground than in years past, thanks to the high number of undecided voters (you can read Nate Silver in depth on the phenomenon here), and a whole lot of people Democrats depended on to elect Barack Obama ended up staying home that November. There’s nothing to say that the 2020 election won’t see similar dynamics.

I’m just one woman, with only the thoughts stirring in my own brain to offer, but I think America’s ennui, its pervasive, high-information sadness, has something to do with the blurring line between what is a “political issue” and what is a “moral issue.” Partisan discourse is so strong, so all-encompassing, that to render judgements about what is a violation of those inalienable rights we are all supposed to cherish, is to take a political stance. Today, the issue of immigration — portrayed on the national stage not long ago in the dry language of H1 visas, pathways to citizenship and legislative solutions — is now a moral morass of separated families, dead children and unsanitary, overcrowded holding facilities. Massacres of elementary school children have become common enough that schools have adapted with the brisk practicality we expect of our teachers — active shooter drills help little children envision what to do in the event their nightmares are made flesh. Writing these sentences will make some readers angry since they will be seen as a promotion of a Democratic Party line — but what’s a political journalist to do when she lays her moral compass on the table, and it points in just one direction on these things?

Americans of both parties oppose family separation. You can also watch a steady, national trend toward greater support for stricter gun control over the past decade. The public expressions about the need for change on our new moral issues are clear, but the political system isn’t built to acknowledge this.

Perhaps people choose not to engage with politics because they know that partisanship’s brittle paradigm will shatter when it takes on the heft of a moral load. It isn’t equipped to handle the problems that plague our consciences. Maybe America is right to feel sad.

Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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