The Tuned-Out Generation
With politics becoming nonstop culture war aggression against citizens, more and more Americans are tuning out.
A foul wind blows across the political landscape. You won’t read much about it in the pages of America’s newspapers or see many segments about it on 24-hour cable news or scroll through much about it on amped-up social media feeds. That’s because the most important if unrecognized trend in American life today is the widespread tuning out of politics by huge numbers of Americans who—with good reason—are disappointed, fed up, or just plain uninterested with what passes for democratic discourse today.
A Knight Foundation study released earlier this year shows that only one third of Americans report paying a great deal of attention to national news, with just one fifth of Americans paying close attention to local news and a scant 1 in 10 keeping up with international events. These are the lowest reported figures of engagement with national news in four years.
As seen below, younger people ages 18-34 report the lowest levels of interest in national news, including less than one fifth of young Independents, around one quarter of young Democrats, and about 3 in 10 young Republicans. But disaffection and disinterest crosses generational lines. Older people, those ages 55+, traditionally hold greater interest in national news and current events. Yet even among this group, less than half of older Americans of any party persuasion say they pay a great deal of attention to national news.
Looking in more depth at the overall landscape of citizen interest in politics at the start of the year, an NBC News poll reported striking displeasure and negativity among Americans about the country and its politics:
Overwhelming majorities of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, that their household income is falling behind the cost of living, that political polarization will only continue and that there's a real threat to democracy and majority rule.
What's more, the nation's top politicians and political parties are more unpopular than popular, and interest in the upcoming November midterms is down—not up.
And when Americans were asked to describe where they believe America is today, the top answers were "downhill," "divisive," "negative," "struggling," "lost" and "bad."
Those are the grim findings of a new national NBC News poll conducted less than 10 months before the midterm elections, when control of the U.S. Senate, U.S. House and governors' mansions across the country will be up for grabs.
"Downhill, divided, doubting democracy, falling behind, and tuning out—this is how Americans are feeling as they're heading into 2022," said Democratic pollster Jeff Horwitt of Hart Research Associates, who conducted this survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies.
Is it any wonder people are tuning out and feeling down? Politics has become nonstop culture war aggression against citizens—a combative arena run by self-absorbed elites seeking to impose their views on everyone else in a series of escalating zero-sum battles over different norms and values. In contrast, most Americans just want to be left alone to live their lives free of interference from others, with some basic assistance from the government on the economic front and fair opportunities in the private sector for good jobs and work advancement. As they go about their own business, Americans would like to know that their government and political leaders are looking out for their interests and helping the country perform better on multiple indicators.
Today, however, few pressing national problems seem to get addressed. Few political compromises are made to help solve these problems. Few debates reflect the complex views of most people not addled by ideology or cults of personality. Politics has failed Americans. So, Americans are increasingly tuning out to deal with their own needs, live out their own values, and focus on their own concerns. This is a perfectly reasonable response to an unchanging and unresponsive political situation.
It’s an open question whether either Democrats or Republicans can figure out how to reach and represent this tuned-out generation of Americans. “Our nutters will beat your nutters” is not a smart strategy for winning the hearts and minds of the disaffected masses. As the ideological extremes take over both parties, the tuned-out middle sits by waiting to be courted and listened to in politics. To do so, however, the people running the leading political and media institutions in America will first have to make a conscious decision to end the endless culture wars and start focusing on the economic and social needs of the nation as a whole without constantly badgering other Americans to believe things they don’t want to believe.
People are different and have different views. But most Americans who are not rich face similar challenges paying their rent or mortgage; keeping up with rising household costs; finding some extra money to take a vacation, save for the future, or fund their kid’s education. They worry about crime in their communities and the quality of the schools. They need help taking care of sick or elderly parents or children with special needs. They want the country to be safe from outside threats and to carry out its values in world affairs. The want the economy to grow and for American businesses of all stripes to do well locally and on the global stage.
If political elites want to help the disaffected and tuned-out middle, they should leave people alone in terms of their beliefs and focus on these common challenges by drawing on good ideas from across the ideological spectrum—with a lot more common sense and humility and a lot less culture war grandstanding.