America is More than just Politics

The Real Divide in America Is Between Political Junkies and Everyone Else

To say America’s political class is out of touch with the rest of America would be an understatement. If you were to listen to some pundits on the right and left, the country is more divided and polarized than ever, and there was even some Civil War and Secession talk months ago.

But this doesn’t speak to the actual political divide in America. The real divide in America isn’t between Democrats and Republicans, it’s between the minority of Americans who allow Politics to dominate their lives and everyone else.

Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan, associate professors of political science at Stony Brook University have been studying the ways in which people pay attention to politics and how it may impact their political views and behavior.

They found that the other divide, rather than Democrats and Republicans, is also between those who eat, sleep and breathe politics versus the people who pay attention but don’t make politics an essential part of their lives.

“There are some people who are paying a huge, almost outsized amount of attention to politics and for others for whom politics is definitely important but in the background,” Krupnikov said.

Most Americans view politics as two camps bickering endlessly and fruitlessly over unimportant issues.

The common view of American politics today is of a clamorous divide between Democrats and Republicans, an unyielding, inevitable clash of harsh partisan polarization.

But that focus obscures another, enormous gulf — the gap between those who follow politics closely and those who don’t. Call it the “attention divide.”

Most Americans — upward of 80 percent to 85 percent — follow politics casually or not at all. Just 15 percent to 20 percent follow it closely (the “deeply involved” class): the group of people who monitor everything from covfefe to the politics of “Cuties.”

Before the COVID-19 Pandemic, Americans were asked to name the two most important issues facing the country. As expected, there were some clear partisan divides: For example, Republicans were more likely than Democrats to cite illegal immigration as an important issue.

But on a number of other issues, Americans fall much less neatly into partisan camps. For example, Democrats and Republicans who don’t follow politics closely believe that low hourly wages are one of the most important problems facing the country. But for hard partisans, the issue barely registers.

Partisan Republicans were most likely to say drug abuse was the most important problem facing the country. But less-attentive Republicans ranked it second to last, and they were also concerned about the deficit and divisions between Democrats and Republicans.

Among Democrats, the political junkies think the influence of wealthy donors and interest groups is an urgent problem. But less-attentive Democrats are 25 percentage points more likely to name moral decline as an important problem facing the country — a problem partisan Democrats never even mention.

These gaps extend beyond issues to feelings about the other party. Hard partisans are twice as likely as people who pay less attention to politics to say that they would be unhappy if their child married someone of the opposing party.

Hard partisans are also more likely to speak out about these political likes and dislikes. Almost 45 percent of people who are deeply involved said they frequently share their views on social media — in some cases, daily. It’s only 11 percent for those without a politics habit. To put this in perspective, a Pew study found that 10 percent of Twitter users are responsible for 97 percent of all tweets about politics.

This gap between the politically indifferent and hard, loud partisans exacerbates the perception of a hopeless division in American politics because it is the partisans who define what it means to engage in politics. When a Democrat imagines a Republican, she is not imagining a co-worker who mostly posts cat pictures and happens to vote differently; she is more likely imagining a co-worker she had to mute on Facebook because the Trump posts became too hard to bear.

We see this effect in a study that the New York Times did with three other political scientists, James Druckman, Samara Klar and Matthew Levendusky. These political scientists asked a group of over 3,000 Americans to describe either themselves or members of the other party. Only 27 percent of these people said that they discuss politics frequently; a majority consider themselves moderates. But nearly 70 percent of these people believe that a typical member of the other party talks about politics incessantly and is definitely not moderate.

For partisans, politics is a morality play, a struggle of good versus evil. But most Americans just see two angry groups of people bickering over issues that may not always seem pressing or important.

How can politics better match the opinions of a majority of Americans? The fact is, it’s not an easy problem to solve. We can try to give the hardened partisans less voice in the news. Featuring people who exemplify partisan conflict and extremist ideas elevates their presence in politics (though of course by definition, it is the partisans who are most closely watching the news who are also most likely to give their opinions). This is particularly true of social media: What a vocal minority shares on social media is not the opinion of the public. Yet such political tweets, as the political communication scholar Shannon McGregor finds, are increasingly making their way into news coverage as stand-ins for public opinion.

There might be an advantage for politicians who focus less on the demands of partisans and more on tangible issues. Yes, hard partisans are more likely to reward ideological victories, but they are also a minority of the electorate.

During the 2020 election, partisan Democrats wondered whether that day’s “outrage” would finally change how people feel about Donald Trump. Partisan Republicans wondered the same thing about Joe Biden. But most “regular” voters were not paying that much attention to the daily onslaught. It turns them off.

And the major scandals that do break through? Well, to many of them, that is “just politics.”

You may be wondering, what is it that most Americans are focusing on if not politics? Well its an easy answer, their own lives and interests. The Average American is focused on their family, their friends, their career and simply living their life. The average American is far more interested in relationships, pop culture, sports, partying and travel than they are about political bickering in Washington DC.

I’ve been following politics casually for the past few months and will be going forward, and my life has been and will be far better because of it. There exists the real America outside the political world and the Internet, its time some people discover that.

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I Defend America and its Foreign Policy from a Liberal Perspective.

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James Slate

James Slate

I Defend America and its Foreign Policy from a Liberal Perspective.

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