Sometimes I wonder what I would be thinking about all day if I weren’t thinking all day about politics.
I sort of fell into this line of work. I wanted to write for a living and to live in a city where my friends were, which turned out to be Washington, D.C. I was less than happy working in a golf course conference room for a fledgling import-export company, living at home and pretty regularly sobbing alone in my bedroom. (It was post-crash America, and I’m decently confident that this scenario meant that I was better off than about 90 percent of recent college grads.) A guy I knew who worked at a political magazine maneuvered my résumé out of a pile, and a course was charted that has led me here, to 2019, where I think about politics all day, every day. I fantasize, occasionally, about becoming an archaeologist — I think I would like all the camping, plus the time spent in cool, musty museum labs with papyrus and pottery shards.
Up until recently, these fantasies of “something-else-besides-politics” were logical because it seemed like a lot of the country wasn’t very interested in politics. It made me feel sort of useless — who really read this stuff outside of D.C.? Was it making a difference? But now things are different — people are paying attention. Perhaps it’s because of President Trump — a 2017 Pew Research Center survey found that 52 percent of Americans said they were paying more attention to politics since his election. My colleague Geoffrey Skelley recently wrote about just how much attention likely Democratic primary voters were paying to the Democratic primary — a lot, it turns out. Forty-five percent of people in one survey done this year said they were paying “a lot” of attention to the campaign, compared with only 28 percent of people who said the same thing in a similarly-phrased poll question from 2015.
But to what end is that engagement? Last year, the Public Religion Research Institute found that 69 percent of Americans felt sad, angry or fearful when they thought about what’s going on in the country today. But only 19 percent of people had gotten in touch with an elected official in the last year, just 14 percent had volunteered and a paltry 12 percent had attended a community meeting, like a school board or city council meeting. For all the sadness some Americans feel, and for all our tuned in-ness to politics, we don’t seem to be doing much politically proactive day-to-day.