You May Be Tempted to Tune Politics Out, But Here’s Why You Shouldn’t

Back in January, the Pew Research Center released the results of an intriguing set of focus groups they carried out last year. Ordinarily, of course, survey research organizations test the sentiments of registered or likely voters to check in on their mood. But these groups were voters who, in Pew’s words, “look at the nation’s politics as a topic better avoided than embraced.”

What those voters had to say is a sign of these highly polarized, highly politicized times. They’re overwhelmed with information and not certain what they can trust. They’re tired of all the arguing, and so while they’re willing to vote, they have no desire to get more engaged than that—in some cases because they say they’re trying to protect their mental health.

They’re also frustrated with both the Democratic and Republican parties, saying they don’t find a comfortable home in either and don’t much like what they see of the parties’ leaders. And they believe, as Pew sums up their sentiments, that “there is too much fighting and not enough progress being made on issues that are important to everyday people.” So, for the most part, they’ve chosen to disengage.

One intriguing finding of those focus groups: While participants generally coalesced around their complaints, they were all over the map on what to do about it. Some suggested structural changes to how our system works (like term limits or reducing the role of money in politics); some argued politicians should refrain from negativity; others thought a third party might be helpful. My own suggestion would seem counter-intuitive, but here it is: Rather than shy away from involvement, these people should become more engaged.

Let me explain why I say that. Over the course of a long political life, I’ve heard pretty much every excuse there is for non-participation in American political life: lack of time, lack of interest, lack of knowledge, impatience with conflict and negativity. These are all understandable objections. We all get discouraged from time to time, or question whether we have anything to contribute or will even be allowed to contribute. Sometimes, we blame this on the system as a whole, or on the people who are participating in it.

But this is a recipe for losing our democracy. Our system depends on the willingness of ordinary Americans to get involved, whether it’s tackling a problem up the street or in the state capital or in Washington. There’s no one else coming to our rescue: It’s up to us to make our system do what we need it to do in order to make progress on the challenges we face. Which means we have to accept our democracy as it is and try to make it better. Being critical is fine. Being so critical that people drop out is a problem.

I get that participation is a pain. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of thought, and I’m not surprised that people get upset and vow to ditch the whole thing.

Yet it’s the very people who see the problems and wish things were otherwise who need to be involved. The corrective for a political culture that drives participants away isn’t to tune it out; it’s to get involved and work to fix it, so that you—and others who think like you—can find a more comfortable home there. If everyone who’s tired of the arguing and negativity and rank partisanship and political maneuvering that distracts from the tough issues we face as Americans were to run for office themselves or work for someone who thinks as they do or even just roll up their sleeves and set about solving some local problem, we’d have a different political world.

Don’t get me wrong. Change wouldn’t happen overnight—it’s taken decades of evolution for us to reach our current state. But we’re there because we’ve allowed and sometimes even encouraged partisanship and sniping to flourish; if that’s going to change, it will only be because people who believe there’s a better way get involved.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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