Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Americans and Politics

There are two ways to see politics in America. One is to focus on the political discourse as it unfolds on the news and on social media. There you see intense partisanship that seems to be tearing the country apart.

But there is another way to see America, as Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan explain in the NY Times:

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.”

What we found is that most Americans — upward of 80 percent to 85 percent — follow politics casually or not at all. 

Millions of Americans are on social media to talk about cars or share pictures of their grandchildren; on Twitter, 10% of users make 97% of the political posts.

On some issues the opinions of the non-involved mirror those of their parties, for example surveys find that all Republicans rank illegal immigration as a serious problem.

But on a number of other issues, we found that 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 problems. 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.

I am not at all sure how to think about these findings. There are certainly Americans who hardly ever think about politics. Some of them don't vote; some do, but with a casualness that horrifies the politically involved. Looking over the numbers I conclude that many of them must be fairly strong partisans, since each part seems to have about 40% unwavering support. I suppose deciding on your party and always voting for its candidate is one way to minimize the amount you have to think about politics.

And here's the real question for me: do these people who are not involved, whose opinions are different from the loud partisans, form some kind of anchor that would help keep the country from sliding into civil war? Or would they, in their indifference, just be dragged along by the loud leaders of the side they have chosen?

And then this:

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.


G. Verloren said...

"And here's the real question for me: do these people who not involved, whose opinions are different from the loud partisans, form some kind of anchor that would help keep the country from sliding into civil war? Or would they, in their indifference, just be dragged along by the loud leaders of the side they have chosen?"

Most Germans reported themselves as apolitical going into the Third Reich and WWII.

It can be shocking, the things an ordinary person will go along with or simply allow to happen - like putting infants and children in literal cages, for the non-crime of their parents attempting to legally apply for asylum in the correct way.

The less politically involved someone is, the less likely they are to feel like they have any control over what happens on a larger scale than their own lives. And so we get people saying, "Well if the government says it's necessary, it must be, right?", or ,"It's terrible, but what can you do?", or ,"I didn't make the rules, I just follow them", or ,"I'm innocent! I was just following orders!".

The Milgram experiment has been conducted over and over again in many places and contexts, and the results are consistent and largely incontrovertible - most people will at least reluctantly obey authority, even when they don't want to, even when they disagree strongly with what is happening as they understand it.

We humans are social animals who are drawn to figureheads and charismatic leaders who can tell us what to think, so we don't have to think ourselves.

David said...

I was very interested in this article as well. And I think it's quite possible that this mass of politically uninvolved persons could keep us from sliding into civil war, partly because intense political involvement seems to have more to do with personal proclivity and interest, than with such things as regional, class, occupational, or ethnic identity. That is, the politically involved have only a limited ability to call on the less politically involved because of regional, ethnic, or other identities. The Proud Boys may think of themselves as White activists, but most White people don't know about them, let alone care about them or their cause. (This weakness of sectional identities is something that seems less characteristic of some other societies, particularly in South Asia. Karens, Pashtuns and their rivals in Afghanistan, and Iraqi Sunnis, Kurds, and Shi'ites and similar groups seem to be structured in such a way that a Kurdish activist group, for example, can actually have a chance to win broad, armed, active Kurdish support.)

That said, the mass of the politically uninvolved will also at the same time enable a politically involved group that gets the appearance of legitimate power to do things that some of us regard as very bad. Very few White Americans, for example, care as much about immigration as Stephen Miller does. But we've seen that they're also not much inclined to stop him, once he has the authority, from breaking up families, closing down the asylum system, allowing or encouraging the CBP to bully their detainees, etc. And the mass of the politically uninvolved aren't going to stop leftists from destroying public art they find offensive. (Personally, I think what Stephen Miller is doing is much, much, indeed orders of magnitude, worse than tearing down some statues and painting over some murals. But then again, I'm one of those politically involved people who can't help forming moral judgments, instead of virtuously (irony warning) shrugging.)

David said...

V. and I were posting at the same time, but I intend my second paragraph to run along similar lines as V.'s post. Apathy can enable some very bad things, and take a country to a very bad place. And both Milgram and the Third Reich are class examples of the phenomenon.

It may be added that the Third Reich within Germany is an example of a dictatorship that thrived because it was strongly supported by significant part of its population, and put up with by virtually all the rest, and actively opposed by almost no one. Until the last year or so of the war, the Nazi government survived and thrived without terrorizing the German population. In this sense, the Third Reich was very different from, for example, Stalin's Russia. It has been pointed out many times that the vast majority of Stalin's victims were his own people, while the vast majority of Hitler's were non-Germans (even if one counts Jews who lived in Germany as Germans, which of course Hitler did not; the vast majority of Jews killed were inhabitants of other countries, such as Poland and Hungary).

G. Verloren said...


Stalin killed "his own people", but many of them weren't Russians - they were from the many, many, many other ethnic minorities that existed in the Soviet Union, often Central and Northern Asians, but also Baltic peoples, Scandinavians, Poles, etc.

And the ones who were Russian? They were "class traitors" and other dissidents. They could be easily vilified as enemies of the Revolution, that surprisingly fragile ideal that everyone wanted desperately to believe in, but felt was under constant threat of destruction from outside forces such as the Capitalists and the Fascists (which... wasn't really incorrect!).

In both cases, tribalistically "othering" people in order to get the core ethnic or nationalist block of supporters to not care what was done to them was critical. It's so much easier to get people to overlook evil acts that are done to "someone else".

But in the sage words of Bill Watterson, "...unfortunately we're all "someone else" to someone else." Until enough people realize that fact, we're doomed to repeat all our worst mistakes over and over again.

David said...

I wondered if I would get in trouble for using the phrase "his own people." By that phrase, I simply meant Soviet citizens. Yes, I realize that there were many minorities in the Soviet Union, that many of them were persecuted specifically as ethnic minorities and others as class enemies, that Stalin himself wasn't ethnically Russian, and that Stalin's regime engaged in a process of othering. I was really pointing out just a very basic difference between Hitler's and Stalin's regimes. This difference has, as far as I'm concerned, no moral significance whatever. Both regimes were horrid, as far as I'm concerned. But in terms of understanding how dictatorships can happen and how they can exercise power, I think it's important to recognize some of them rely much more than others on terrorizing citizens as a major and constant and essential pillar of the regime.