Here’s a piece I’m thinking about today, in the New York Times: The Real Divide in America Is Between Political Junkies and Everyone Else.
The opening grafs from the article:
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. Just 15 percent to 20 percent follow it closely (the people we call “deeply involved”): the group of people who monitor everything from covfefe to the politics of “Cuties.”
What the article describes is… fairly accurate in my experience? My own circle of friends is pretty political in general — either being political is part of their identity, or their identity is political, or both — but outside of my circle of friends are family, acquaintances and neighbors who largely don’t engage with politics with the same attentiveness or fervor. When you are a politically-oriented person, it’s easy to forget that many if most people don’t engage with politics with the same intensity.
I’ll be the first to note that this doesn’t make sense to me — I am of the opinion that politics is only slightly less important than breathing — but then again I was and am a professional opinion-haver. I think you all will recall that I was a newspaper columnist back in the day, and in that column I was writing about current events, including politics. And of course for the last twenty-two years I’ve been writing about it here and elsewhere, too. I have to acknowledge that both professionally and personally, it’s possible I’m an outlier.
And you might be, too! If you are a politically-oriented person, it’s not really that much of a surprise that your immediate circle of friends might be politically-oriented as well. It’s not that much of a surprise because whatever one’s enthusiasms, it makes sense that the people you like spending time with might have similar enthusiasms. Did you know: I write science fiction novels? Do you know what it is that quite a lot of my friends and acquaintances read (and write)? Science fiction novels! And yet, immediately outside of that circle of friends, the number of people who read and write science fiction novels drops off precipitately, into the realm of people who read science fiction novels seldom, or, indeed, at all.
Politics is more important than science fiction, though, you might say, and I wouldn’t disagree with that. But just because something is important doesn’t mean people give it importance. Cishet white folks most of all can make that choice, but I don’t think it’s something that only cishet white people do; I know friends of various marginalized communities who have expressed frustration at others in those communities who are not as politically engaged. Some people don’t care, or think it’s important, or, at the very least, don’t think it’s something they need to think about all the time.
Does this mean that they won’t be responsible voters every couple of years? I think the knee-jerk reaction of everyone who prioritizes politics is to say that they won’t be responsible voters — this is where cranky people say things like “I would rather they don’t vote at all!” — but I think that’s uncharitable. I think it’s possible for someone who doesn’t live and breathe politics to take some time prior to voting to catch up on the big stuff and vote responsibly. And if they don’t… well, as I said in a previous entry, I don’t think political parties really see that as much of a problem. They’re just as happy with someone who will go in and reflexively vote a straight line party ticket as they are with someone who sweats their choices in every race, and maybe even more so, since the person who is really thinking about it might make a non-party-line vote.
I should be clear that how one votes matters, and once again, I think voting for Trump this year is an intrinsically bigoted and dangerous act, not to be excused by “well, I’m not really that political.” One can act politically even when one doesn’t engage with the field of politics. But I do think that those of us who live and breathe politics do well to remember that it’s not an all-encompassing thing for a whole lot of people. They’re not ignorant, or dimwitted, or apathetic. They have a different set of priorities regarding how they want to apportion their brain cycles. One can agree or disagree with those choices, but it doesn’t change the fact those choices are being made.