One of the more noxious tropes to emerge from our hyper-polarized politics is the idea that those on the other side of the political spectrum are necessarily less-informed than we are. Stupider.
Let us set this question aside, both because it’s unanswerable and because it’s gross. Let’s instead evaluate another question, one that I personally find more interesting: Who are the Americans who do and don’t pay attention to political news? And: What can that tell us about politics?
This is a bit self-serving, to be fair, like Chevron casting a skeptical eye on people who ride bikes. But here you are, reading a political article at The Washington Post, so I would think that you share my general belief that the consumption of political news has some value. That agreement stipulated, let us continue.
Polling released this week by Grinnell College, conducted by Selzer & Co., considered this specific question. Respondents were asked how much attention they paid to political news, with responses ranging from “a lot” to “I would rather put my face in lava,” though that option was worded differently. A plurality of respondents said that they paid “a fair amount” of attention to political news; two-thirds of those polled said they paid “a fair amount” or “a lot.” Only 1 in 10 chose the lava option.
As you might expect, though, this varies among different demographic groups. Below, I compare 12 different subpopulations from the poll — grouped by party, age, income, etc. — and compare their responses to the overall values shown above. (The overall values are overlaid with dashed lines.)
Consider what the chart below shows.
First, notice that the idea that one party or the other pays less attention to political news is unfounded. It’s independents who are disengaged with the news. (Nearly a fifth opt for face-lava.) This appears regularly in polling; it’s generally independents who are most likely to say they have no opinion on questions about specific policies or issues. (Also notice that independents who tend to vote with one party or the other are folded into the party responses.)
It’s also the case that groups that are often underrepresented in politics are less likely to consume political news: younger people, people who aren’t White, people without college degrees and those who have a lower income. Those without a degree are about twice as likely as those with a degree to say they glance at or avoid news; those younger than 35 are similarly likely to chose those options relative to older respondents.
One might wonder whether this correlation has an element of causation, whether the disinterest in political news leads to less interest in politics which leads to political power. Or, alternatively, whether less political power leads to less interest in politics and therefore political news. This is an old debate that isn’t worth adjudicating here, but the correlation is itself important.
There are other important caveats. Just as avoiding political news doesn’t necessarily mean someone is unacceptably uninformed on political issues, paying a lot of attention to political news doesn’t mean they are. Are avid consumers of channels like One America News particularly well-informed about politics? (No.)
These results are also a subset of the subset of people who track political news. After all, it’s a group of people who responded to the poll, which itself might reflect a higher percentage of interest in political information and news. Selzer & Co. is one of the best pollsters out there, so it’s safe to assume these results are representative. But on this question, it’s hard not to wonder if there’s an effect.
That said — and again recognizing my bias — it strikes me as important that indifference to political news and underrepresentation in politics correlate. Would the world be better if everyone had a Washington Post subscription? I would argue yes for more than one reason. Would the world also be better if no one really had to pay much attention to politics and things simply hummed along without much need for reconsideration of our choices? It would! But to view such a utopia as possible, I’m afraid, necessitates paying no attention to political news.