The new polarization that explains our politics

A pedestrian passes a polling station in Washington, D.C., on June 16, 2020. MUST CREDIT: Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post

There are a few schools of thought about how the guilty verdict in Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s prosecution of Donald Trump for falsifying business records will affect the election. What all the people involved in the debate have in common is the guilty verdict has no chance of affecting their own votes.

They already have fully formed views of the former president, as most people do. The argument is taking place among the minority of Americans who say they are very closely following the trial (16 percent of the public, according to a Yahoo News-YouGov poll) about the even tinier sliver of Americans who might be persuaded to change how, or if, they vote.

The molten controversy over the flag-draping choices of the Alito household should be kept in the same perspective. In February, nearly two years after Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote to overrule Roe v. Wade, a poll found that two-thirds of Americans didn’t know enough to have an opinion of him. When asked to volunteer the name of a justice, any justice, most of us can’t do it. In another poll, in 2022, just under a quarter of those surveyed came up with “Clarence Thomas,” and he was the most well-known of the bunch.

The difference between the voters who are most intensely interested in the election and the voters who will decide it is not a gap. It’s a chasm, and it’s widening. From 1990 through 2016, the General Social Survey found a steady increase in both the percentage of Americans who have little or no interest in politics and the percentage who are very interested. The percentage of people with a moderate level of interest in politics declined.

The voters most active in politics are richer, Whiter and more credentialed than the disengaged. They also have more extreme – or, if you’d prefer, more ideologically consistent – views.

In the past, the disengaged, also known as “low-propensity voters” who frequently skipped elections, were more likely to be Democrats. Consequently, Democratic politicians had a strong interest in boosting turnout. Today, though, these disengaged voters are strongly backing Trump. They account for his lead. The Democrats’ strength among highly politicized voters, in turn, explains their recent dominance in special elections, in which fewer voters participate.

The need to persuade disengaged voters shapes presidential campaigns in all kinds of ways. Take the metronomic message discipline that many candidates adopt. Reporters and political junkies hate hearing the same lines at every stop, but breaking through to these voters requires repetition. Regular readers of newspapers already know that President Biden supports legal access to abortion while Trump takes credit for ending Roe. But 17 percent of registered voters think Biden is more responsible for its demise and another 13 percent do not know which candidate is. Biden keeps hammering this point in part to educate this subset of voters – almost a third of the electorate.

The contrast between the highly politically motivated and the disengaged does a lot to determine the general tone of our politics. The politically engaged portion of the population includes two groups of people with sharply defined views. Those groups hate each other’s views and, increasingly, they simply hate each other. To prevail in close elections, they need to win a lot of votes from people who have very different psychologies from them and don’t pay much attention to politics.

The sound of our politics comes from the effort of fevered partisans trying to rouse the inattentive: In other words, a lot of shouting.



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