Thursday, February 24, 2011

Outside the Political Junkie Bubble

The best poll finding of the day is that 22% of all Americans believe that Obama health care law has already been repealed, and another 26% aren't sure whether it's been repealed or not.

It's worth giving the full question..."As far as you know, which comes closest to describing the current status of the health reform law that was passed last year?" The choices were "It is still the law of the land" and "It has been repealed and is no longer law," with the rest in either "don't know" or refused to answer. Republicans were twice as likely to believe its been repealed than Democrats (30% of GOP, 12% of Dems).

Remember: if you're reading this blog, odds are good that you're at least in the top 10% of all Americans in political knowledge, and more likely you're in the top 1%. And for those of us in that group, it's hard to imagine just how little the median American knows about the day-to-day events that we pay so much attention to. Even when in some sort of abstract way it makes sense for people to know about politics or public affairs -- for example, it makes sense for Medicare recipients to know how ACA affects them -- they just don't. Sometimes that's because people aren't well-educated enough to feel comfortable reading or even watching the news (and the linked polling shows that college grads do much better on this question, although "some college" respondents actually are more likely to believe inaccurately that ACA has been repealed than are those with no college).  But often it's because people have other, more immediate things in their lives to attend to, or they pay attention only occasionally, or they have low tolerance for conflict, or they just don't see any connection between things happening in Washington and their lives.

I've said this 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.


  1. Is it hopelessly elitist or naive to believe that this is a seriously unfortunate reality, or is it the sort of thing that has been ever thus and is best to simply accept?

  2. Hell I am and I will starting now follow your blog. What a crock! If we loose this country to the Corporations the only ones to blame are the mentally sleeping Giant called the Majority of Citizens.

  3. This will soon change for sure. Democracy can't be to leave a paper in a box every 4 years. There are the means, things will change. Like is happening in the Middle East, will happen in the west, just a matter of grade.
    If we override the need for leaders and every one must participate (maybe starting per his area/profession) and manage as citizens, this won't happen as involvment would become compulsory.

    Warning: this is only a hope. Who knows.

  4. It really is sad that so many people are not paying attention. Or are they paying attention and so overwhelmed they are rocketed to apathy?

  5. I wish pols, pundits and people like us would call it by its full name: PP+ACA. When you remind folks of the Patient Protections therein, they are more likely to believe 1) that it is a good and important bill and 2) that the bill is still in place. Long live PP+ACA

  6. There's a second issue you've ignored -- where did so many people get the idea that ACA was repealed? I doubt that when the House passed their climate change legislation during the last Congress that a whole bunch of folks thought that climate change had become law of the land.

    No, the noise machine and conflict-driven infotainment made a huge rucuus about a meaningless vote in the House. As if the GOP had won a great triumph instead of indulged itself in gesture politics. And then each court decision against the law gets treated as if the Supreme Court itself overturned it, and every court that throws out a challenge to the law gets ignored.

    I noted a Chuck Todd tweet that gulped at the ignorance of the public -- but added that the poll said something about the media's glaring failure to inform. I don't know whether the political "press" has lost all ability to examine itself, but if not, it looks like they'd better get started.

  7. keep in mind that most people aren't paying any attention at all.

    That's without a doubt. It follows that a reasonable, responsible, patriotic politician would sometimes need to say:

    "Wait a minute. You, the people, the electorate, are poorly informed. I'm going to vote and act in the way I feel is best for the nation and my constituents, in spite of public opinion."

    Yet, according to you Jonathan, that politician is a dangerous politician.

  8. Thanks to HuffPost, I will now be following your blog.

    It IS quite sad, the apathy in this country. It's how Palin and the other nasty candidates rile up their "base".

  9. I really disagree with the characterization that the ignorance of the public is an "unfortunate reality." People are busy, and it's far from clear that spending more time thinking about politics or policy would make them happier or better off in any way.

    There is a consistent tendency of people who are interested in politics to overrate the importance of politics to people's lives. Yes, politics has an important impact on various areas of people's lives. So do medical research, automotive engineering, demographic trends, software design, monetary policy, pedagogical theory, and a million other esoteric subjects that very few people delve very deeply into. We leave those subjects to the experts, just like most people do in the case of politics.

    I think the key realization one needs to have is that democracy is a highly functional system of government for reasons that do not require the public to know very much about policy. Democracy is not a good system because it accurately reflects the will of the people, or any other such high school civics claptrap. It is a good system because it reduces corruption, provides strong incentives for policy makers to promote economic growth and avoid costly wars, and allows for the smooth transition of power during the relatively rare times when there is genuine popular discontent.

    It's a tedious kind of elitism that chides the average citizen for her ignorance of public policy. I know nothing about how cars work - and yet I depend on a car to take me all kinds of places. When something goes wrong, I leave it to the experts to fix. Most people do the same with politics, and that's totally fine.

  10. Made a joke in my first two classes today about the Wisconsin legislature. Crickets chirped. These are college juniors and seniors at a highly ranked school, and their assignment from me for the last six weeks has included following serious blogs and reading about public affairs. (Not that their non-reaction surprised me; hey, I've been in this business for nearly 30 years now.)

    The whole ideal of citizens being individually informed about policy, though, is a fairly late development in American history -- it's tied to the Progressive Era, which also gave us our current model of "objective" news media and the conventional wisdom that political parties are bad. I think it was Michael Schudson I learned this from, but it might have been Michael Sandel. Or maybe Bruce Ackerman. [checks Google] It was Schudson:

    "Reformers at the end of the l9th century saw little in the parties to recommend them. The Mugwumps sought to make elections 'educational' and the Progressives tried to insulate the independent, rational citizen from the distorting enthusiasms of party. It is to them that we owe the ideal of the informed citizen, not to the founding fathers.

    -- Schudson, "Good Citizens and Bad History":

  11. I'm between GW/Jeff and the others on this. I realize that life can be very hectic for a lot of people and life doesn't slow down around election time. I also realize that this situation isn't unique to America. Most citizens in all democracies are low information voters, que Churchill's quote about the five minute conversation with the average voter. Still, democracy is supposed to be about the people governing themselves and one would hope for more people to express interests in politics. I also think that such widespread antipathy helps those that would use politics for negative ends like waging unnecessary war or persecuting minorities more than it helps those that weld politics as form of good.

  12. It takes passion to involve yourself with anything. Unless it directly and acutely affects their everyday life, most people remain oblivious to the political scheme of things. Very sad. Especially when you consider how many voters came out during the last presidential election. I'm a huge sports fan... so... wouldn't it be great if we could all get hyped up and throw our support behind some of the pressing issues much like we do the World Cup or the Super Bowl or the NFL mediations or the drama with Carmelo Anthony or the March Madness coming up??

  13. Jeff,

    What you said, about the Progressive era. I'm a big Schudson fan, too.

    GW, Jeff, Lee, and all those they're disagreeing with,

    I think it's important to keep GW's point in mind. After all, in reality policy is far too complex for anyone to master all of it (oh -- you're going to tell me that you know all about Libya, and about Planned Parenthood, and about health care, and about public/private unions -- and that's just some of the issues this week. I certainly don't). It's not bad at all that most of us on most issues either ignore it or follow opinion leadership.

    OTOH, I think involvement in politics is good for its own sake, and I think a system that encourages that is a good thing -- as long as it doesn't, unrealistically, depend on it.

  14. perhaps i had missed it before, but you don't care about the nba! i have to lower my overall very high assessment of you :)

  15. "There is a consistent tendency of people who are interested in politics to overrate the importance of politics to people's lives."
    Just a nitpick, but isn't this true of every hobby? At least with politics the attempts to justify the interest are a little less silly than, say, a model railroad enthusiast's claims that if everyone had a model railroad the world would be a better place.

  16. I have a three kids, one college age, one who is 13 and the other who is dev disabled. With the two older kids I routinely have them watch Fox-esp Beck and then other news and we make a game of pointing out the spin. I then typically will actually pull up the actual bills that are being talked about. I know this may sound like abuse, but they view it as a game. Egypt was probably the best example with watching Al Jazerra English versus Fox to show them that they should never take one pundits word as gospel.

  17. I actually sent a tweet to Paris Hilton a few months ago, saying, "For your soul, you should be watching the memorial in Arizona right now."

  18. The poll findings about the healthcare repeal are shocking. Healthcare reform isn't just "politics." It's possibly the biggest political debate happening right now... besides, of course, the budget, but isn't it all intertwined? Imagine how little people must know about, say Universal Service Reform.

  19. "It's a tedious kind of elitism that chides the average citizen for her ignorance of public policy. I know nothing about how cars work - and yet I depend on a car to take me all kinds of places"

    You are part of the polis. You are not part of the car.

  20. How do we change this so that people actually have some sense of politics? Is it education? The media? Parenting? What needs to change for people to pay attention to politics?

  21. Tom raises a good question. I have my own thoughts about it (I think the answer involves strengthening parties and mediating groups in certain ways), but since this thread is probably dying, I'm hoping Jonathan will get us started on that discussion with a further post and perhaps his own comments on it.

  22. A few nights ago I spent a little time surveying the topics that were trending on twitter. In Venezuela, Great Britain, Canada, Germany, Japan, and many others, 'Gadaffi' (in some form) appeared in the top ten. In the US ... Libya was not on the radar. At. all. Your comments would be more reflective of reality if you changed that 'most people' to 'most Americans,' I am sorry to say.

  23. I love this blog. Keep up the good work!

    If you like movies and film, maybe you can take a look at my blog as well.

  24. Sad but true that people are so little informed and misinformed. Much of the misinformation comes from one network and much of the under informed public watch the sensationalized stories about people whom are famous for being famous, train wrecks of famous peoples lives, and reality shows that are not reality. It would be nice if they actually read newspapers online or political blogs but they don't.

  25. Answer to Tom: People will pay attention to politics when realize how important it is to their lives every single day. Politics determines governance in this country, and governance affects every single citizen in a million little ways every day.

    It determines the quality of education all children receive and which children receive what quality. (see "Waiting for Superman") It determines how strong roads, dams and bridges are and who gets to do what with how much of our shared natural environment (see Deepwater Horizon). Politics controls the targets, missions and priorities of the military, the intelligence community, the mil-industrial complex all the way on down to your local policeman on the corner (see drug war and Guantanamo Bay). Politics decides who gets a pink slip when the lean times come. (see Wisconsin, Florida, etc.)

    And if we improve our politics and turn it to serve the interests of the many rather than the few, we could make our country SOOOO MUCH BETTER to live in for everyone, as well as a much more positive force in the world.

    These are kinds of simple truths that, properly communicated (see Jon Stewart), will make average Americans care about politics.


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