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Posted at 12:03 PM ET, 02/25/2011

Americans don't like politics -- and that matters

By Ezra Klein

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

By Ezra Klein  | February 25, 2011; 12:03 PM ET
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Why do you keep doing this??!!

Americans did not "turn against" the health care bill. At least half have consistently supported it or wanted more.

And the latest Kaiser poll (which you cited earlier today) says 61% oppose defunding. Something that should be getting more coverage.

It's perhaps good that you say Americans "theoretically" wanted lower deficits. But in fact this is not theoretical, it is simply false. Exit polls showed overwhelming concern with jobs, not deficit (or health care). Why cite theory when you have the facts?

Posted by: jtmiller42 | February 25, 2011 12:36 PM | Report abuse

Americans don't like things they either don't understand or don't want to bother trying to understand. It's the flip side of the same argument: Americans don't like politics because it is confusing, and confusing stuff makes people feel dumb.

That's why over-simplistic representations of policy are so common, and it's why Democrats consistently lose ground on important issues: they're too busy trying to explain details while Republicans are saying, "Look how big the bill is! It's complex and confusing! They're trying to pull the wool over your eyes!"

Posted by: lordofporter | February 25, 2011 1:08 PM | Report abuse

I keep recommending this article from 2004 by Louis Menand, in the New Yorker:

Although ostensibly about voting, it scans the sociopolitical literature for information about Americans' general political ideologies: and finds they have none, or at least none that are coherent.

Posted by: JJenkins2 | February 25, 2011 1:12 PM | Report abuse

This makes me thinks of the YouTube video that narrates the story of "Star Wars" by a girl who's never seen it.

It's remarkably accurate for someone who hasn't seen the movies, but highly distorted. Which is pretty much what the public opinion is like.

Posted by: Panglott | February 25, 2011 1:14 PM | Report abuse

most people's lives are too busy to get bogged down in politics. They jump in many times when its something that directly affects them. Everyone has a need for healthcare and everyone pays taxes. Other things were the correlation isn't so direct can easliy be pushed off for what's seen as more important things.

Posted by: visionbrkr | February 25, 2011 1:22 PM | Report abuse

I think this idea is dead on. But don't leave out public influencers like the media and the "political entertainment" industry.

It's because people don't pay much attention that they feel overwhelmed and are more susceptible to oversimplified explanations and react more strongly to fear: "Look what's been going on while you weren't watching!" This happens on both sides.

Nuanced arguments are exactly the things that calm them and make them think everything is OK, and, thus, can be ignored. (And, when I say "them," I also mean "me" in many cases.)

Posted by: dpurp | February 25, 2011 1:41 PM | Report abuse

a good point ezra from an angle not really thought about lol from those of us who are paying attention on a subject we care deeply about; then i thought of my sister, she hates politics, does not watch tv except for rfd and hallmark, is married to a guy who is an ardent follower of beck, limbaugh, savage and is convinced the black helicopters sent by obama are coming any minute. t. jefferson said, "it is essential for the survival of our democracy, to have an educated citizenry." guess that is why the gop works so hard to dumb us down.

Posted by: sbvpav | February 25, 2011 1:42 PM | Report abuse

Is it my imagination, or was the average middle class citizen somewhat more literate about the major policy debates as recently as the post-war period up into the 1970's?

It feels to me that there was a time when more people had a modicum of understanding of the major news of the day. Maybe this is mere nostalgia for the time when people read their newspapers and watched the nightly evening news shows, before the days of 600 cable channels, 2 breadwinners in every household, and the time spent dealing with all the personal financial juggling acts that 21st Century life imposes upon us.

Posted by: Patrick_M | February 25, 2011 1:43 PM | Report abuse

Congratulations! This wins the Schizophrenic Post of the Year award!

1. It is important to realize that the vast majority of the public pays no attention to politics.

2. The lame duck Congress won "sky-high approval ratings."

If the lame duck poll you cite had started out with a qualifying question, such as please tell me anything the lame duck congress actually did, then the poll would have shown that in reality 2.1% of Americans thought the lame duck Congress was wonderful, 1.7% rated it terrible, and 96.2% ate and drank too much from Christmas through New Year's.

Posted by: ostap666 | February 25, 2011 1:51 PM | Report abuse

Congratulations! This wins the Schizophrenic Post of the Year award!

1. It is important to realize that the vast majority of the public pays no attention to politics.

2. The lame duck Congress won "sky-high approval ratings."

If the lame duck poll you cite had started out with a qualifying question, such as please tell me anything the lame duck congress actually did, then the poll would have shown that in reality 2.1% of Americans thought the lame duck Congress was wonderful, 1.7% rated it terrible, and 96.2% ate and drank too much from Christmas through New Year's.

Posted by: ostap666 | February 25, 2011 1:55 PM | Report abuse

i think,for the average person, who is well-intentioned and concerned,it is very difficult to understand a lot of issues.
one needs a thorough education in the background of every debate, or needs to be a specialist in a particular area, to understand things.
for instance, i think that the average person would need a semester-long class, with an ordered syllabus, that would explain the health care discussion.
and another semester-long class, to explain the political history of egypt, since the suez canal, to understand the recent revolution.
without a real understanding and education, it is not possible to have a deep and truly knowledgeable understanding of the issues.
that is why it is critically important, to have journalists who DO understand the issues....who one can really trust, in order to get just a grasp on things.
one person alone, left to their own devices, unless they know a great deal of economic theory, or american history, constitutional law, origin of geopolitical conflicts, knowledge about energy policy, biotechnology.....they become lost at a certain point.
thank goodness for the handful of trusted journalists, who help us to understand what is happening.
and even then, it is very confusing.
but, lots of times, it is possible in all things, to apply a little common sense.

Posted by: jkaren | February 25, 2011 2:00 PM | Report abuse

@ Patrick_M:

I doubt if people paid more attention to politics and government in the 1970's than they do today. My impression is that the big change is the development of the right wing disinformation machine, meaning that today people have less information and more misinformation.

Posted by: KennethAlmquist | February 25, 2011 2:41 PM | Report abuse

Assuming someone overcomes their apathy and decides to learn something about politics on their own, the next biggest problem will be knowing where to go to get the right information. Even a bachelor's education doesn't give you much practice in thorough research and critical thinking. Thus, it's all too easy to discover and then believe bullshit information.

Posted by: ztdunnam | February 25, 2011 4:04 PM | Report abuse

This is nothing new. Despite very high voting participation rates in the 19th century, most voters - not to mention the majority of adults legally barred from voting - had very little understanding of complex, hot-button issues like the tariff, banking policy and railroad bonds. Even the granddaddy issue of them all - slavery - was argued in terms so arcane that ordinary people would have had a very difficult time following it: politicians argued over things like "squatter sovereignty," the "Freeport Doctrine," "submissionists," and the "Wilmot Proviso." Informed voters who read party newspapers knew what these terms meant and what they signified about the unfolding slavery debate. But most voters and non-voters understood the slavery debate in broader, ideological terms that seemed to bear little resemblance to the actual give-and-take of politics. So voters took their cues from the cable TV screamers of the day - the rapidly expanding partisan newspapers - and basically got in line on election day. An expanded polity, new technology and a more broadly educated electorate has done little to change this.

Posted by: ElrodinTennessee | February 25, 2011 10:08 PM | Report abuse

I like the comparison to sports and entertainment.
However, the important point that can be made regarding that was completely neglected - that unlike in sports and entertainment, in politics the "uneducated masses" are continuously sought out for opinions, by those who DO KNOW what is going on. Which, when you think about it, is a spectacularly bizarre idea. Imagine if for the position of head coach for a basketball team, every 4 years a large group of people that had no interest in and no knowledge about the sport were asked to decide who would be the coach, and their decision would be final. The idea is ludicrous - except in politics.

I don't advocate that voting be restricted to only those that pass a test or similar, but I DO advocate that maybe the politicians should stop giving so much weight (or at least lip service) to the opinions of people who clearly have no clue what they're talking about...

Posted by: wapo70 | February 25, 2011 11:32 PM | Report abuse

You know, in Wonkbook today you wrote:

"We're days away from a possible government shutdown..."

Yet the stock market has reacted little if at all in the run up to this. My opinion, which is based on years of training, is that the weighted average of trades does not always follow such things in great detail, well in advance. Certainly some serious traders do, but what percentage of shares do they control of total volume in the market? And many serious traders don't. And certainly the vast majority of the public doesn't follow such things in great depth and detail, and with much analysis, as you note in this post.

What market movement have we seen when the news of the House's open amendment process came out, and when that process attached serious ideological amendments to the demanded cuts? I saw little if anything; any movement that was there seemed explainable completely just from Libya. In any case, I pulled all of our money out, and we had been 100% in since before the market hit rock bottom in 2009. This shutdown could be very long, risky, and/or destructive. It looks like it may have to get very bad (or worse) before either the Republicans or Democrats give in. It'll be interesting to see what kind of pressure the Chamber of Commerce and other big business put on Republicans when the shutdown starts taking down the economy and markets.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | February 28, 2011 12:05 AM | Report abuse

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