Shortly after the conclusion of the 2016 Vice-Presidential debate between Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Pence, Washington Post journalist Chris Cillizza’s described it as “super depressing”: “I found myself wishing it were over at 10pm,” Cillizza wrote of a debate that would go on for another half hour, “And I love this stuff more than anyone I know. What must the average voter have been thinking?”
If recent surveys are any indication of the average American voter’s thought process, Cillizza’s description of the VP debate as “super depressing” can easily be applied to the 2016 election as a whole.
In a recent survey, Pew found that very few people were excited about this particular election. Only 10% of survey respondents reported that the 2016 election made them feel “excited,” and only 15% reported feeling “optimistic” about the election. Meanwhile, 57% felt “frustrated” and 55% fled “disgusted.”
Even the prospect of their favorite candidate winning the election did not do much to cheer people up. Among people who reported supporting Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump only 28% said they would be excited by his victory. Among those who reported supporting Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton only 25% said they would be excited if she won. This compares negatively to the 2012 Election when a similar Pew survey that 52% of President Barack Obama’s supporters felt “excited” by the prospect of his victory, and 50% of Mitt Romney’s supporters were similarly excited at the possibility of a Romney win.
If the lack of excitement surrounding the 2016 election is palpable, what are the consequences of this (to use Cillizza’s terms) “super depressing” election? In particular, once Election Day is over, will it matter that many voters showed little to no enthusiasm for either of the Presidential contenders? Our research hints that this form of mass exasperation with politics is likely to cast a long shadow. Among the many things at stake in this election one is people’s willingness to participate in the political process in the future.
In our book, Independent Politics: How American Disdain for Parties Leads to Political Inaction (2016) we demonstrate that when people have negative views of parties, they begin to shy away from public forms of partisan political participation. This is only natural. People want to make the best possible impressions on others. The simple desire to present the very best version of yourself has broad consequences combined with generally negative media coverage of political parties and partisans. When people start to believe that political parties are viewed negatively, they become hesitant to take any actions that may be perceived as partisan. After all, no one wants to publicly proclaim him or herself to be a part of a group that they believe others dislike.
Public avoidance of parties can take on many forms. When people aren’t excited to be either Democrats or Republicans they report that they are “independent” when asked for their partisanship. Even more consequentially, people who avoid parties have no interest in participating in political activities that promote the parties.
But what happens when people are not only not excited to be part of a party, but aren’t excited about politics in general?
Our work suggests the possibility that a lack of excitement about politics will translate to a mass retreat from political participation. If people see nothing exciting – or at the very least positive – in the political process, it is unlikely that they will see any benefits to political participation.
The motivations for political participation are often elusive. People participate not because they have any particular payoff for taking part in an election, but rather participation is often about some intangible, often affective benefit. People participate because they want to be part in some greater cause, they participate because they are excited about the possibility of a particular outcome. Once there is no excitement about politics, the reasons for participation grow elusive: what benefit is there to taking part in a process that brings a person so few positive emotions? What reason is there to participate when they entire process seems like a morass of negativity?
There is no reason to participate in a political process that is increasingly frustrating and largely unexciting. To this point, the 2016 Election has produced a sort of mass exhaustion with politics. Politics, this election suggests, is for people who are comfortable with anger and conflict – something that many voters wish to avoid.