Civic Habits: Following Politics but Losing Perspective

The 2020 election cycle will require re-thinking how we watch the news

How do you follow politics? This phrase “follow politics” has been a part of the American National Election Studies for decades. That means thousands of Americans have answered the question.

But what habit would you have in mind when you answer, “yes?”

Your sister might answer “no” because she knows how involved you are, and she barely keeps up with morning headlines. Your college roommate might answer “yes” because she always serves up the political memes on Facebook (and she doesn’t care what anyone has to say about it either).

Once upon a time, it was all about reading the newspaper. 

What does it mean to follow politics today? When you think about that question now, the list of considerations has to be as fragmented as our media and politics.

Following politics is more than watching the news

Newspapers have changed. Our sources of news have changed. Our expectations of representatives, media sources, candidates, and the general political punditry have all changed. We don’t have to watch the national nightly news. We’re all pundits now!

The biggest challenge we face today might be misinformation on Facebook. That “might” in the sentence is important. In a much-quoted book from 2000, our TV habits took the blame:

TV-based politics is to political action as watching ER is to saving someone in distress.

― Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone

The habits we have today for following politics might not work any better than what Putnam describes. If we wanted to update the question about following politics, we would have to try to separate good habits from bad ones. There’s also the possibility that an old habit no longer works.

There’s a big question hidden there. What do we expect following politics to do for us?

I had to quit a Sunday morning talk show habit. I kept watching that standard-issue political spin for months after it stopped working for me. I had a habit. When I said I followed politics, I could prove it. 

We have big moments on the calendar that remind us to review habits in other parts of our lives. We announce New Year’s Resolutions to join the gym or to read two books a month. We post that we’re kicking carbs out of the house to get ready for summer vacation pics. 

Quit bad news habits to protect time to think

The election cycle ahead promises to test all of our habits—the ones that kind of work and the onest that just keep us busy. 

On Pod Save the People’s Earth Day show, Ayana Elizabeth Johnson said she had to quit listening to podcasts. A marine biologist and policy expert, Johnson realized she was bombarded by information all day. To stay fresh for her work and manage her willpower for continued activism, she had to make time to think.

Perhaps that’s the measure of whether or not a civic habit works. What do you do to both follow politics and make time to think? That sounds like the equation for staying informed and keeping perspective.

For reviewing your habits before you get swept away by Election 2020, follow Johnson’s lead. Her example shows the disconnect between how we measure following politics and what we know an informed voter has to do in today’s media environment.

Previous measures of following politics have emphasized how we consume information. Respondents have identified their preferred sources, and perhaps estimated who they trust most. Extreme ideological sources appear alongside sources who seek to maintain journalistic standards. Some of these outlets imagine their work to be a public service while others operate to promote a specific viewpoint. We resist talking too much about this for fear of a perceived bias. We might even brag about reading news from “both sides.” This false equivalency puts our public mind at risk.

On the verge of the 2020 election cycle, let’s talk about the civic habits—news gathering and election watching—that keep us focused on understanding public questions. We need time to think with sources that help us know the current status of the issues up for debate and the proposals in play.

It’s a jungle of fake accounts and Twitter bots out there. They will keep us busy and help us feel connected. The security of the public mind depends on our ability to develop better habits.

We had to quit the Sunday talk shows. Now we look for questions worth sharing and share them. Ditch a bad habit and join our list.