By Jen Mercieca
During the 1948 presidential election—the one in which pollsters and newspapers incorrectly predicted that incumbent Harry Truman would lose to challenger Thomas Dewey—political communication scholars Bernard Berelson, Paul Lazarsfeld, and William McPhee asked voters in Elmira, New York, about their interest in politics and how closely they were following political election news.
What they learned is central to how we think about elections and voters in America, but it wasn’t exactly good news for democracy.
“The democratic citizen is supposed to be interested in public affairs,” they explained, “but even during a presidential campaign—presumably the high point of political intensity—not every citizen is interested.” The “not every citizen” part was generous. The researchers found that most of the good citizens of Elmira—two-thirds!—had only a “moderate” interest or “no interest at all” in the presidential election of 1948. No wonder it was so hard for pollsters and journalists to predict who would win.
The researchers in 1948 explained that citizen political interest was predicated on two things: political efficacy (thinking that your vote could change the course of events) and partisanship (strongly favoring or opposing parties or candidates)—the more you thought your vote mattered and the stronger your partisanship, the more likely you were to report to researchers that you had a “great deal” of interest in the election.
You might think with so little interest in the 1948 election that voter turnout would be low, but many of the folks who admitted to researchers that they weren’t interested in the election didn’t follow political news in one of the town’s two local newspapers, and never talked with others about the election did end up voting. In fact, 58% of those who said they had “not much or no interest” in the election voted in November (compared to 78% of those who had “moderate interest” and 82% of those who had a “great deal of interest”). Two-thirds of the nation voted, even though they had hardly paid attention to the campaign.
It's seventy-six years later, and we’re in the middle of a presidential campaign in which democracy is at risk and still only about one-third of Americans pay attention to political news and political campaigns with “great interest.” According to a 2021 Gallup/Knight Foundation survey, 67% of Americans report that they don’t read or watch the news regularly, don’t pay for news subscriptions, or talk to others, or post online about politics. Just like Americans in 1948, they’ve tuned it out.
Those modern-day tune-outs might still get political news in ambient ways—when they do, it’s usually from unreliable sources and tends to be heavily skewed toward outrage-bait and conspiracy lies (which attract a lot of attention). A lot of them will vote, but they’re not what scholars like Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan call “politically involved.” In what they call “the other divide,” they found that 80-85% of Americans are effectively tuned out. But some of us—just 15 to 20%—are highly engaged with political news—we’re what historian Claire Bond Potter calls “political junkies.”
Political junkies like us aren’t just paying subscribers who read the morning headlines or watch the evening news; we read and watch political news all day long, we talk to people about politics and post about it online, we feel anxious that we could miss a politics story, and we engage with others who post political news and information, especially those who we believe have WRONG opinions on the internet. You’d think it would be good to be highly engaged, but we’re part of the problem because we’re too involved in politics—we tend to be party extremists.
“Politics is,” according to Ezra Klein, “first and foremost, driven by the people who pay the most attention and wield the most power — and those people opt-in to extraordinarily politicized media. They then create the political system they perceive.” That highly politicized media, “isn’t even designed for persuasion,” according to Klein. “The bulk of opinionated political media is written for the side that already agrees with the author, and most partisan elected officials are tweeting to their supporters, who follow them and fundraise for them, rather than to their critics, who don’t.” That’s certainly not good for democracy.
The highly politically engaged pay for news subscriptions, give their attention to political news organizations, spend time and attention on social media, vote in primaries, attend political rallies, and contribute money to political campaigns. It makes sense that news organizations, platforms, candidates, and parties would shape themselves around the highly engaged who pay the bills.
It makes sense, but it’s warped our politics. The highly politically engaged attend to the kind of news that makes people tune-out of politics and has downstream effects like making Congress more ideologically polarized, preventing problems from being solved.
We’re a nation of political tune-outs and political junkies…and that’s not good. American politics is a spectacle created of, by, and for the highly politically engaged—and that spectacle alienates the majority of the nation, ultimately threatening our democracy.
When scholars examine what makes a democracy stable, they tend to look at things like the strength of political norms and institutions. When citizens think about what makes a democracy work, they tend to think about whether or not rights are protected, elected officials care about what ordinary people think, and whether problems are getting solved. Sometimes, what makes democracies stable is also what prevents voter interest—political norms and institutions and partisanship can seem so entrenched that they erode political efficacy—because people think their vote won’t make a difference.
We—political tune-outs and political junkies—have to learn to do democracy like Aristotle’s golden mean—“a mean between excess and deficiency… neither too much nor too little.”
The good news is that according to a recent YouGov poll, more Americans think that democracy is the best form of government today (67%) than did in 2018 (59%), and “only 4% of Americans say it would be a good thing for the U.S. to have a dictator in charge, while 80% disagree.”
The bad news is that according to a recent Gallup poll, a record 72% of Americans are dissatisfied with how democracy works in the U.S.
Most Americans don’t want a dictator; they want democracy. But they want democracy to work better than it does now, and many worry (and a small number hope) that the poor functioning of democracy in America makes the nation vulnerable to a dictator.
Folks are right to worry. Our democracy is being tested by polarization, propaganda, and a wannabe dictator—and by us.