Americans don't like politics -- and that matters
Most people don't pay much attention to politics:
To get a sense of what politics is like for many Americans, I suggest thinking of something that you do encounter in some way all the time, but that you just have zero interest in. Perhaps sports in general -- or, for sports fans, a major sport that you don't pay any attention to. Perhaps it's current pop music, or HBO shows, or celebrities. Me? NASCAR, the NBA, and any games made since Missile Command and Stargate Defender. The idea is that I actually do encounter and, in a way, retain a fair amount of information about those things in the nature of headlines that I see but skip the stories, or references made in other things I do read or watch, or conversations I've had that veer off in that direction. It's not as if I know absolutely nothing. It's just that the stuff I've heard is not organized at all, and I'm sure I've picked up misinformation along the way, since I don't scrutinize any of it.
Anyway, when you're involved in what's happening in Wisconsin, or Libya, or the budget negotiations in Washington, just keep in mind that most people aren't paying any attention at all.
It's easy to smile ruefully at this observation and move on. I think it should be taken more seriously. In “Stealth Democracy,” political scientists John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse amass a lot of public-opinion data showing two things: First, as Jon Bernstein says above, most people do not pay much attention to American politics, and they do not want to pay much attention to American politics. But that preference leads to another preference: In order for most Americans to tune out of politics and not get ripped off due to their inattention, politicians need to be acting in an honorable, "non-self-interested" way.
This is why things like partisanship, evidence of corruption, the public understanding of earmarks and so forth are so damaging. They're signs that the process in Washington is broken. As Hibbing and Theiss-Morse note, most Americans don't have terribly strong views on policy and figure people of good faith could fairly easily come to agreement on the nation's major problems. When that's not happening, people get scared. They're not paying attention, and they've certainly not hired high-powered lobbyists to butter up members of Congress with attention and campaign contributions. But they know others have. So they worry -- rightly -- that their disinterest leaves them holding the bag for the favors that powerful interests are getting. And the worse the process looks from afar, the more they figure they're right to be worried.
To get a sense of how this works in practice, consider the sky-high approval ratings Americans gave to the lame-duck Congress. That was a Congress, mind you, that increased the deficit by more than $850 billion while passing a second round of stimulus -- and this was weeks after an election that theoretically proved Americans wanted lower deficits and an end to stimulus. But when voters saw the two parties agreeing and working together, they loved it, and figured that whatever policy was being passed was probably pretty good. In contrast, Obama ran and won on the Affordable Care Act, but Americans turned against it amidst sharp and unrelenting criticism from the Republican side, much of which focused on the specter of backroom deals and impenetrable complexity
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