The exhausted American voter: Ready for a change?

With a polarization perhaps at a peak in politics, Americans may be fed up – not just with ‘the system’ but their own acrimony. Hitting bottom in political fatigue may have its benefits.

AP Photo
Republican party door-to-door canvasser Andy Andrews, left, talks with homeowner Jim Fulton in Fitchburg, Wis.

Exhausted yet? For more than six months, American voters endured the raucous campaigning of the primaries. By the end of July, they will have witnessed two highly staged party conventions with plenty of mudslinging. After that, they will experience three more months of the presidential race until the general election.

Their opinion so far? According to a Pew poll in June, more than two-thirds of registered voters said the election campaign has been “too negative.” Perhaps there’s nothing new there. But in addition, most also say candidates are not focused on important issues. And never in the history of polling have the two top party nominees, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, had such high negatives.

Perhaps voters, after becoming so polarized over the past half-century, are now weary of the divisions reflected in the presidential campaigns. Only one state primary, New Hampshire, saw more than a 50 percent turnout, and that is because it was the first. In the rest of the primaries and caucuses, the average turnout for both Republicans and Democrats was only about 30 percent.

In addition to the emotions of fear, anger, and loss expressed during this 2016 election, maybe voters are also fatigued over the ceaseless conflict and manipulations. President Obama represented this mood recently when he said, “We can’t move forward if all we do is tear each other down.” 

If polarization is near a historic peak in American politics, might voters be hitting bottom in exhaustion? And if so, are they ready to return to a politics that embraces civility, respect, and compromise?

In a new book, “Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America,” University at Buffalo political scientist James Campbell suggests that there are limits to voter exasperation. He says a large minority of Americans still see themselves as moderates, a fact that politicians cannot ignore, while many liberal and conservatives are not zealots. In addition, a large consensus still exists on the main issues, such as the economy and national security.

Politics is actually a low priority for most Americans, and the political system is set up to force compromise. “We also know many Americans are averse to conflict,” he writes. He calls for humility about our political views and an understanding that no one can be right all the time.

Dr. Campbell ends his book with these wise words:

“All of this is to suggest that intense political disagreements are exhausting and perhaps unsustainable. This may be an organic regulator or limiter of the dysfunctional consequences of extreme polarization. Until this polarization fatigue sets in, though it rings with futility, there unfortunately may be no better advice than that given by the British government during World War II to the British public: ‘Keep Calm and Carry On.’”

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