We are now at the mercy of democracy doomers

The 2024 election is set to be the longest general election match-up in modern American history.

This is true both in terms of the number of days and also the general feeling of exhaustion and anxiety (or excitement) about the threat of Donald Trump’s return to the White House, boredom with a rematch between the 2020 presidential candidates, and how large segments of the American public would prefer an alternative to both President Joe Biden and Trump.

“It’s almost a cruel joke on the electorate that the longest presidential election potentially ever might also be the one that they’re least excited about,” one Democratic pollster told ABC News. 

To save America’s multiracial pluralistic democracy from Trumpism and the larger neofascist movement – a struggle that will take decades and not years or one election cycle — will require great focus, mobilization, and expenditures of time, energy, and resources by the country’s pro-democracy movement as well as everyday people as well.

Unfortunately, new research from the Pew Research Center shows that for a variety of reasons many Americans are instead relatively disengaged and uninterested in politics. This disengagement is a de facto surrender to Trumpism.

Pew’s profile of some of these political disengaged Americans (what I and others have described as “politics dropouts”) begins with:

In a fractious political environment often dominated by the loudest voices on the left and right, some people are saying: Count us out.

Last year, we talked to a group of people who, while they may vote, are not strongly attached to either political party. They don’t closely follow news about politics or government, though some feel guilty when they don’t. By and large, they look at the nation’s politics as a topic better avoided than embraced.

With the first votes of the 2024 election about to be cast, these are people whose voices are largely overlooked. Last May, we conducted six focus groups of adults who have soured on politics and political news. 

They have a sense that politics is everywhere – and often in a bad way. They find themselves overwhelmed by how much information they confront in their day-to-day life.

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The focus group participants also told Pew that today’s toxic political environment is hurting their mental health, so they avoid it. In addition, Pew notes how, “Others are turned off by polarization, negativity in politics, and a two-party system that they feel does not represent their views and is too limiting.”

Pew’s profile of these political dropouts speaks to larger trends among the American public. Other research from Pew shows how the American people are generally dissatisfied with the country’s political culture and direction. The result is a type of legitimacy crisis, which is the fuel driving the rise of Trumpism, the larger neofascist movement and other antidemocratic politics and values.

Pew’s 2023 report on the overall state of America’s politics reached these general conclusions:

[N]o single focal point for the public’s dissatisfaction. There is widespread criticism of the three branches of government, both political parties, as well as political leaders and candidates for office. 

Notably, Americans’ unhappiness with politics comes at a time of historically high levels of voter turnout in national elections. The elections of 2018, 2020 and 2022 were three of the highest-turnout U.S. elections of their respective types in decades.

But voting in elections is very different from being satisfied with the state of politics – and the public is deeply dissatisfied.

Pew’s detailed findings include:

  • Just 4% of U.S. adults say the political system is working extremely or very well; 
  • Positive views of many governmental and political institutions are at historic lows. 
  • A growing share of the public dislikes both political parties. Nearly three-in-ten (28%) express unfavorable views of both parties, the highest share in three decades of polling. And a comparable share of adults (25%) do not feel well-represented by either party.
  • Majorities back age and term limits and eliminating the Electoral College. 

There are other well-documented explanations for political disengagement and why so many Americans are political dropouts.

Political participation is related to a feeling of political efficacy, i.e. that participation “matters” in terms of how elected officials, parties, and “the system” responds to a given person or group’s demands and interests. Participation and engagement through voting and other political activities are also correlated with income and other resources. Poor and working-class people are not mobilized in this country both because of demands on their time and lack of resources but also because the two institutional political parties, and the country’s elites as a group, are suppressing and demobilizing them. Of course, white racism, the color line, and other aspects of America’s political culture and history have hampered mass mobilization by poor and working-class people in this country to address common needs and concerns.

Political scientists and other researchers have repeatedly shown how Congress is not responsive to the needs and demands of the average American — in essence the United States is an oligarchy. While this may be frustrating and surprising to members of the news media and the political class who generalize from their own interests and peer group to that of the public at large, most people in the United States do not follow politics closely, lack a sophisticated understanding of politics and current events, and do not possess a coherent ideology or way of systematically organizing their political beliefs and resulting behavior.  Moreover, even in a time of democracy crisis and other great challenges both here and abroad, many Americans are not paying close attention to current events – which includes voting in the 2024 election.  

The Fourth Estate is supposed to be the guardian of democracy. In the Age of Trump and in the decades that helped to birth this democracy crisis and long neofascist moment, the mainstream news media has mostly failed in that regard. One of their greatest failures is not explaining in a clear and consistent way to the American people why politics matters in their day-to-day lives.

To an unsophisticated and overwhelmed public, which is caught up in the spectacle of news as entertainment, struggling with economic precarity, future shock, and an pathological attention economy and empty consumerism, these discussions of politics all too often just seems like partisan bluster and fighting where both sides are equally bad and responsible for the country’s problems. Ultimately, for all of this talk about a crisis in democracy and the threat of fascism and how the institutions need to be protected, what do those words really mean to the average person? And given how more than 50 percent of the adults in the United States read below a sixth-grade level, do they even possess the cognitive skills and abilities to be responsible civically engaged citizens?

The 2024 election and the future of the country’s democracy and freedom will be decided by a relatively small number of people (estimates suggest that the 2024 election will be decided by 100,000 or fewer voters in a small number of battleground states). The party and leader who can best compel the political dropouts and otherwise disengaged – the choice between the sanity and even handedness and responsible leadership of President Biden of the chaos and spectacle and excitement of Trump and his Republican fascists and MAGA people – will have an advantage in the 2024 election and determining if the United States will remain a real, albeit flawed democracy (or not).

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