Long commutes are making Americans more politically apathetic

November 19, 2013

The Capital Beltway. Fear it. (Linda Davidson/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Long commutes are a fact of life for many people — particularly here in the Washington area — and commuting brings with it an increased risk of many bad outcomes: obesity, divorce, insomnia, and on and on.  Now we may need to add one more consequence to the list: people who spend more time commuting are less likely to be interested and get involved in politics.

That is an implication of new research by political scientists Benjamin Newman, Joshua Johnson, and Patrick Lown. (Another link to the piece is here.) They show that Americans who report longer commutes say they are less involved in politics.  Participation in politics is 12 points lower for people with a 60-minute commute relative to people who work from home and have no commute.  Why does this effect emerge?  Newman and colleagues suggest it is because commuting saps people’s underlying interest in politics.  And even more unfortunately given the huge gaps in the political involvement of rich and poor, long commutes seem to affect the poor the most.

Notably, Newman and colleagues show that the potential impact of commuting on our political involvement doesn’t arise just because more hours in the car means fewer hours to watch the news, write letters to members of Congress, or vote.  If it were just a question of time, then we might expect people who work long hours to be less involved in politics too.  But that isn’t true: people who report working more hours are no more or less likely to participate in politics.  Instead, the authors argue that commuting depletes our psychological resources in unique ways.  In short, commuting makes us feel bad, and this leaves us with less energy for pursuits like politics.

The upshot?  Long commutes not only make us less healthy, they may make our democracy less healthy too.

John Sides is an Associate Professor of Political Science at George Washington University. He specializes in public opinion, voting, and American elections.
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