This week the president spoke about economic inequality. It is a problem to be sure, but it tends to blot out other types of inequality that are quite significant.
One is information inequality. We are becoming two countries when it comes to politics. On one hand are the people who blog, Tweet, read the blogs and the Tweets, and consume politics minute by minute. There are think tankers and news media consumers. Some have a granular understanding of not only the tactics but the substance of issues. For them, micro-developments (Speaker of the House John Boehner said the GOP must be more “sensitive”!) take on huge meaning. These people are full participants in the political system.
But there is a great mass of Americans are unplugged. There were about 240 million voting-age adults in 2012; only about 130 million votes were cast. Even among the 130 million who vote, there are millions who don’t know the name of a single cabinet member, never watch a talking head cable TV show and vote (maybe at most) once every four years.
The plugged in are highly opinionated in most cases. They thrive on confrontation and drive much of the national debate. They’ve made politics into an esoteric subject with its own language. In doing so, they make politics angry, petty and somewhat incomprehensible — which are the reasons a great many Americans choose to unplug themselves. Political insiders sneer at “low information” voters, but in reality these are “low interest” voters who have decided to check out.
It is similar to the culture that grows up around sports or cooking or TV. If you don’t keep up with the latest trades, the newest ESPN host and the daily stats, it becomes a blur. If you are not a Food Network addict or a cookbook maven you may not know a zabaglione from a Zinfandel or know Giada De Laurentiis is a celebrity chef not an Italian movie star. And if you have given up on keeping up with the new inside shows you have to bide your time as friends and colleagues discuss the finer points of programs you’ve never watched, or maybe never heard of. If you’re not among the plugged in when it comes to these endeavors, you understand how alienating it can be to people outside the club. What’s more, the hyper-specialization and obsessive quality of those in the know tends to turn off the casual observer.
I’d suggest in politics it is this phenomenon — which is responsible for the 24/7 news cycle (without political junkies there would be no audience) — that skews politics and distorts policy-makers’ and political tacticians’ behavior and decision-making. It has gone from the realm of general knowledge and responsible citizenship to an arcane activity practiced by a relatively small percentage of the population. But unlike cooking, sports or TV, it shouldn’t be. We are talking, after all, about the practice of democracy and self-rule. In a free society we undermine our political institutions and the very notion of democracy by making politics as inaccessible as a mid-season episode of Mad Men if you haven’t watched any of the series. We could start with more rigorous education in history and civics, but it also requires politicians to get out of their rut.
If politicians want to respond and serve the country as a whole and figure out those who don’t Tweet, blog or hang on every political utterance, they need to step outside the culture of obsessive politics. It requires great discipline for them to pull back from Twitter, Drudge and all the other vehicles of the politically obsessed to come up with campaigns and policies that might attract wider appeal and, frankly, give even the unplugged better campaigns and better policies. Political insiders can try to reach these voters (as Democrats are expert at doing) through popular culture and social media, but, I would suggest, there is only so much they can do.
What would be more helpful is for politicians and candidates to de-plug to some extent, turn down the noise and understand how politically unplugged neighbors, friends and family view politicians. Like viewing an impressionist painting, it’s sometimes better to look at it from across the room; if nothing else you can see how others view the art of politics. That might improve the tone of the political class, focus their attention on smaller steps that make marginal improvements and bring them back to the political center where much of the country — if you count the unplugged — resides.
It may be inevitable that we now have niche politics just like we have niche programming and, niche advertising, but it isn’t all that good for the country. We wind up diminishing democratic involvement and we miss the viewpoint of millions of Americans whose common sense, decency and moderation are indispensable to a healthy society.