The other day, a friend and I were discussing a political subject about which we (mostly) agree. One of us had just expressed frustration about what a representative of the opposing political point of view had said about a particular issue and we both promptly made the mistake of getting wound up about it and assuming that Those People were just plain stupid. Admit it, you have done this. You may have even said it: “All [political party with which you disagree]s are stupid!” You’re only human, right?
I caught us both starting to dismiss the opposition as a bunch of idiots, and it shook me up. I took a moment to reflect about that. Normally, I don’t like to assume the worst of people or to lump people together and assume there’s a monolithic group acting like The Borg or a Hivemind. Normally, I want to know why people with whom I disagree happen to think the way they do. So why was I dismissing an entire political party as being irredeemably “stupid?” I knew it wasn’t true. I have friends and family who support that political party, we coexist peacefully, and not one of us is unintelligent. What gives?
It occurred to me that some people don’t really care about politics. “What!?” you say (while reading this article on a website that discusses politics a lot). “How can this be?” Politics is very complex, encompassing social issues, legal issues, financial issues and — though Separation of Church and State would seem to be a contraindication — religious issues. To be well-informed, you must seek out information from a lot of different sources, which takes commitment, time and energy that some people can’t (or don’t want to) make. That’s another problem: I know conservative friends who will dismiss any information not endorsed by FOX News. I know liberal friends who would rather eat Ebola-tainted glass shards than listen to Glenn Beck.
The thing is, sometimes you must listen to or read the opposing side’s point(s) of view to understand an issue better. That way you’re disagreeing with what they actually said or did, and not what a source that supports your political views claims they said or did. This, my friends, if you are (wo)man enough to grin and bear it, can be very enlightening.
While trying to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and understand the opposing political party’s points of view, and while trying to suss out why I can be so interested in political issues but why most people I know could not care less, it dawned on me that sports and politics have one thing in common: a small core group of passionately interested followers.
I care a lot about politics, but I don’t care about sports. I don’t hate sports, though: I am as close to being utterly indifferent as possible, which is not hate or even distaste. I just don’t care. There is no “you’re wrong if you like sports” message here. I’m just not into ‘em. (Here’s where I apologize in advance for any egregious errors I make when discussing sports. Feel free to correct me in the comments section if you feel so inclined, but know that you’ll be outing yourself to the rest of us as A Person Who Cares A Lot About Sports…not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
People who like sports typically really like sports. People who like sports pay attention to which people play for which team. They know the coaches’ names and sometimes they know the referees’ names, too. They make a point to travel to see sports in action. (I would say that more people watch or attend sporting events than vote or go to Town Hall meetings or political rallies, but that is just a guess.) People who like sports understand the context when Dennis Rodman gets up, while accepting an award, and apologizes for past bad behavior and vows to be a better person. Non-sports people may not even know who Rodman is, or just know him as “that clown” who likes body art, hair dye and wearing dresses. There’s no context there for them, so the non-sports person shrugs and says, “That’s nice.”
Or take the LeBron brouhaha. I’m a non-sports person. To me, it looks, from the outside, like LeBron dumped one team to accept a more lucrative offer from a competing team. This doesn’t bug me one bit. Isn’t that what all people do when they wish to advance in their career? They leave one job, which they may have liked perfectly well, to accept a better-paying job elsewhere and few people raise an eyebrow about it. A sports person, however, is going to have very strong opinions about LeBron’s decision. For political junkies, this is like a politician switching his or her political party: Former Governor Charlie Crist from Florida switching allegiance from Republicans to Democrats, or former Representative Artur Davis in Alabama switching allegiance from Democrats to Republicans.
I am vaguely aware of various stand-out athletes. Sometimes, such as when I play trivia games, I am shocked that some nugget of sports information has managed to filter its way into my sports-indifferent brain files. I’ve attended a few sports events (and was fairly knowledgeable about the Atlanta Braves during the mid-1990′s, if I dare say so myself, though much of that knowledge is long gone…it has atrophied from disuse). I know that if you go to the University of Georgia, you better damn well support The Dawgs, or suffer the consequences. To translate this for politics fans, a sports fan considers someone not knowing who Yao Ming is to be like not knowing that John Boehner is the Speaker of the House, and only two heartbeats away from the Presidency.
Folks, not only was I not interested in the most recent Superbowl, I forgot what Sunday it was going to air, and I am still not 100% sure who played. I don’t care who won or lost. That was the motherloving Superbowl, people, which I am not unaware is a Very Big Effing Deal if you like sports (especially football). Are you having heart palpitations yet, sports-loving people?
People who are not interested in sports behave a lot like people who only have a faint awareness of politics. They know the names of the biggest players, and have a rough idea which “team” they belong to. They pick and choose favorites by relying upon arbitrary and limited scraps of information. They hear a soundbite and it sounds good, and they don’t feel the need to go digging for context. Likewise, a passion for political information is probably just as unfathomable or boring or uninteresting to people who do not give a crap about politics (beyond the basic highlights and soundbites) as a passion for sports trivia and current events is to people who do not give a crap about sports. Just as my friends and relatives who care passionately about and enjoy sports are probably disgusted by my lack of interest, I find myself equally upset with people who don’t give a shit about politics.
Here’s the problem: Political issues have a habit of affecting us all, whether we pay attention to them or not. Conversely, whether a particular sports team wins or loses is a big deal to fans, but even they have to admit that the outcome — unless they bet on it — is usually not going to really affect them on a personal or lasting basis.
There is a limited amount of free time and attention any one person can give to topics that go beyond the basics of survival. You have to worry about your family, your job (or lack thereof), your home (or lack thereof), your personal aches and pains, your health problems, and so on. The busier you are with family, work and other personal concerns, and the more hobbies (like sports) you have competing for your attention, the less likely it is that you are going to have the interest — or free time — to really dig into politics. You might not even be bothered enough to go and vote (sometimes only about 30-40% of eligible Americans vote, meaning 60% of Americans (who are eligible to vote) are saying they don’t give a damn about politics…or not enough of a damn to vote).
It is understandable that busy people with a less than passionate interest in politics are going to stick with one source of information even if it makes them misinformed, like Fox News — and please understand the difference between uninformed (which is knowing nothing about a particular subject) and misinformed (which means what you think you know or what you have been told is incorrect — or pick one party and stick with it. They will reject the idea that maybe that party is now working against their best interests (perhaps this is like being a life-long Red Socks fan before they won in 2004, because they were your team, and your dad’s dad’s dad’s team, or just because…”Go Socks!“)
There is a reason why political candidates do their best to cherry-pick the current hot-button topics before each election. A lot of people don’t care to really sit down and examine all the issues, because it is a daunting task. They let politicians set the talking points and then argue about them. I may be cynical, but I don’t see a lot of these so-called talking points being passionately discussed by non-politicians before they become political footballs to fight over.
Oddly enough, when a politician is not railing about a particular issue, people find it simple enough to decide on a case-by-case basis what they think about something when it actually involves them personally. Pundits and politicians take issues that may or may not involve the majority of the public personally, and try to get people to care passionately about them, and, you have to admit, they often succeed. Who gave a shit about the Debt Ceiling before 2011? Be honest, now. It was always a non-issue that only very politically well-informed people even knew about.
Here’s the tricky part: You can’t force people to give a shit about politics, even though it is in their best interests to care. For those of us who do care about politics, who have the time to read and research extensively, who have the ability to step back — even if just a little — and attempt to be as objective and fair as possible, and who vote, a lack of interest in politics (or a clinging to misinformation or a lack of information, or a lack of intellectual curiosity or passion) astounds and shocks us. Perhaps this is how a die-hard baseball fan feels when s/he suddenly comes to the uncomfortable realization that no one but an equally passionate few care about The Designated Hitter Rule. If you surround yourself with dozens of equally passionate people who care about all the same things that you care about, you are likely to wind up surprised when you are confronted — outside the embrace of like-minded friends — with people who don’t even know about your pet issue, and don’t care. No, they don’t want to watch a video about it. No, they don’t want your brochures. No, they aren’t going to click your website links.
What’s wrong with staying inside your personal infobubble with like-minded friends? Well, ask any liberal how shocked they were when Bush 43 was elected…twice. Within the liberal monkeysphere it was almost inconceivable that this might happen. Outside their circles of (approximately 150 or so) like-minded liberal friends, things were a little more complicated. Liberals’ failure to look outside their personal monkeyspheres then was just as bad and self-limiting as conservatives who hunker down within the comforting influence of FOX News and fail to do due diligence (like reading or watching sources other than Fox) now. FOX meets their needs, whatever they may be (fear-stoking slanted commentary about Scary Others, a confirmation bias circle-jerk, Not Liking Obama, resistance to social change, whatever), just like staying within closed-circuit progressive cliques appeals to liberals who like to pretend the entire world is as aware of, open-minded about, and interested in the same things they are.
In short, here are some hard truths I have learned:
1. Not everyone even cares about politics.
2. Those that do care a little bit may pick a side (or a party) and just stop there, never questioning their choice.
3. Those that don’t stop there may not delve far afield from one source of information, which may have serious flaws (such as FOX News, which repeatedly gets criticized in studies for misinforming its faithful viewers).
4. Those who do draw their conclusions from more than one source of information may refuse to read information that is known (or suspected) to have a political slant or bias opposite to that of their pet political party. (How many Liberals do you know who will willingly read a book by David Barton, Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh? How many Conservatives will read an Al Franken, Barbara Ehrenreich or Molly Ivins book?)
5. Those who are willing to read both sides’ points of view may still be filtering information through psychological and moral filters that are radically different from those of the opposing party.
6. Some people care about politics only as a means to an end: they care strongly about a particular social issue or policy (such as pro-lifers, or people who want to legalize pot, or people who are angry about Monsanto and GMOs, or people who advocate for minorities or the disadvantaged or disabled), and will therefore vote for whichever politician seems to be most in line with their views about their pet issue. That politician’s political party will not figure into their decision.
7. It behooves us — especially where political differences are concerned — to expand our “monkeyspheres” to include other “outside-of-our-personal-sphere” monkeys, but it is difficult to do, given our limitations.
8. It helps to frame political issues in “this is what this will mean for you” terms for people who don’t typically care about politics. If you say, “Romney’s tax plan will cost you $2000 more a year,” they listen. If you say, “Obamacare means you can’t be denied healthcare insurance for preexisting conditions” or “Obama believes in equal pay for equal work, meaning women doing the exact same jobs as men should be paid the same salary those men earn,” or “Obama believes that your non-straight friends and family members and co-workers and neighbors are human beings, too, and that they deserve equal rights,” they may hear that, too. People who don’t care about politics much simply don’t give a shit about the Debt Ceiling, or who is more to blame for obstructionism in the House and Senate or White House, or want to look at a ton of facts and figures and graphs. What they want to hear is “this is what this policy will mean for you.”
9. Again, if you want people who typically aren’t into politics to care, you must make a political issue personally relevant to them.