When Voters Become Pundits

Today I want to share an article from the New Yorker, How Trump is Transforming Rural America that offers an interesting, unintended portrait at trend that has been rising.

The article is not different or inherently more interesting than any other article reporting on this theme: Supporters of a politician continue to support him. I mean, well, regardless of the merits of their support, he has an approval rating of around 38% in a country of 300 Million, that means there are a lot of people who support him (and more who don’t).  Really, what would be more valuable, or perhaps more interesting, is for these reporters to find the voters who changed their mind, which, according to the polls, has happened.

But, I didn’t want to share this article to just criticize the reporting, nor did I want to share it to comment on their support for Trump. I’m sharing it because I think it offers a good example of a trend I’m finding more and more in people I observe in interviews, online, and among people I know. That trend being that people seem to be turning into pundits in their thoughts on politics. Less concerned with their support for something, I find their reasons astonishing, and becoming increasingly common.

The common thought is that regular Americans, whatever that means, care about paying their bills, putting food on the table, having their kids do well in school, doing meaningful work, and feeling safe doing all of these things. So, why don’t voters really talk about these as motivators for their actions? Certainly everyone wants these things, but people seem not to explain it explicitly as a why they have arrived where they are.

In this article, among others, voters are shown to be concerned about the theater of politics: the slogans, electioneering, cable news chyrons, who has made the latest gaffe, who is in the White House hot seat. These, of course, don’t matter outside of those interested in the dramatics and the culture of politics. They don’t affect the legislation or regulation politicians make. They don’t impact a person’s bottom dollar, yet, despite how regular Americans truly do care about these issues, they aren’t concerned with them when explaining their support:

After the turbulent first two months of the Administration, I met again with Kathy Rehberg and her husband, Ron. They were satisfied with Trump’s performance, and their complaints about his behavior were mild. “I think some of it is funny, how he doesn’t let people push him around,” Ron Rehberg said. Over time, such remarks became more common. “I hate to say it, but I wake up in the morning looking forward to what else is coming,” Ray Scott, a Republican state senator who had campaigned for Trump, told me in June. One lawyer said bluntly, “I get a kick in the ass out of him.” The calculus seemed to have shifted: Trump’s negative qualities, which once had been described as a means to an end, now had value of their own. The point wasn’t necessarily to get things done; it was to retaliate against the media and other enemies. This had always seemed fundamental to Trump’s appeal, but people had been less likely to express it so starkly before he entered office. “For those of us who believe that the media has been corrupt for a lot of years, it’s a way of poking at the jellyfish,” Karen Kulp told me in late April. “Just to make them mad.”

It may be tempting to argue that no one is explaining their support as based on fundamental issues because anyone who would do so is not supporting Trump. But I don’t buy that. I believe every American really does care about the issues I described, but I think, in this instance, people are far more interested in the culture of it than the principle. They want their guy to win and the other’s guy to lose. What their candidate does is alright and can be defended if you want to be able to defend it, and I think there’s room on both sides for this as well.

This, of course, isn’t true for everyone. Approval has changed because people have changed their minds! But I’m interested to see how this trend continues. I hate punditry, I don’t care much for political theater, and I fear that if those things are all that motivates people and their voting we will lose our ability to make meaningful improvements on the issues that every American, and person, really, cares about.

I guess I can add one more thing that every, or perhaps most every, American is feeling: I am worried where we are headed.

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