Do most people really care about politics?

If a congressman holds a listening session and only one constituent shows up, is it a failure of participatory democracy or a fine example of the beauty of the democratic process?

Craig Gilbert, a political reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, kicked off the question this week when he tweeted this photo of Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner talking with Dave Mantz, the only person who showed up.

Mantz was there to talk about net neutrality, a subject on which he and the congressman disagree.

Sensenbrenner has held 41 meetings with constituents so far this year, according to Gilbert. He’s one of the few Washingtonians still holding them.

“I went to his town hall in Hartford Sunday night that drew 22 people. His town halls in Neosho and Lebanon Monday morning drew four and one respectively, according to an aide, Gilbert writes.

Whether these things do any good at all in the age of big money is debatable.

And this one was held in a small town where people go to work during the day in a district that is about as safe for the incumbent as any.

Still, it feels as though there’s a disconnect between the non-stop political coverage of news organizations 10 weeks before a primary, and the willingness of potential voters to care about any of it.

  • BReynolds33

    I have met very few people who care about politics past defending their chosen party and all members thereof. Very few who want to have actual political conversations rather than dig in and declare their view the only possible right way to think or believe. And even fewer people who care what a politician’s actual policy or views are, so long as they have the correct letter next to their name on the ballot.

  • BJ

    It probably says more about the congressman.

    Perhaps because he holds listening sessions his closest election was a win with 62% of the vote. Next closest was 67%, these were in 2004 and 2006. This is since 1979. Nothing even closer in 19 elections over 38 years. This will be 20th congressional race.

    I would guess he replies to constituent mail and other communication. Probably even more old school things like sends congratulations letters to birth and wedding announcements.

  • MrE85

    The answer to the headline’s question is no.

    That doesn’t mean they are right, though.

    • Today’s news is 95% political strategy. Should people other than political insiders care? Why? The weekend conventions clearly were pointless. Did they deserve the attention they got? Why? What other stories are out there that deserved attention in their place, if any?

      • MrE85

        I don’t spend much time listening to pundits, beside the Almanac panel on Fridays. The type of political journalism that I like is the straight forward variety I find at MPR or on MinnPost (see the tremendous candidate updates they have today). The weekend conventions only became worthless after they were over (at least on the DFL side). And really, we won’t know how worthless they are until the votes are in.

        Does the system need change? You bet. Anyone have any suggestions?

        • Mike Worcester

          //Anyone have any suggestions?

          Sure. 🙂

          We can start by dusting off the Growe Commission on Electoral Reform, which was chaired by Sec. of State Joan Growe and included many sensible (ex – a June primary) updates to the endorsing and primary process. So sensible were they that the report was for the most part ignored…

          • MrE85

            See! We’re getting somewhere…

          • Kassie

            I don’t think primaries are better than conventions. Primaries will allow the candidate with the most money to win. Conventions at least allow for someone who is willing to work hard to get the nomination. Either way though, they both favor the two party system. Anyone who is outside of the two parties has such a disadvantage. Yesterday, someone wanted to file as an Independent, but couldn’t without 2000 signatures. He didn’t need them if he filed as a Democrat or Republican. Why shouldn’t those candidates have the same barriers? Why should Minnesotans have to pay for a Primary, which is just a way for the major parties to select their candidate?

            Real election reform would include Ranked Choice Voting, equal rules for all candidates, spending limits including spending by PACs, and open access to debates.

          • Mike Worcester

            One of the recommendations of the Growe Commission was to allow for multiple endorsements by setting a threshold %, then on the primary ballot any endorsed candidates would be indicated as such. Right now that is not the case. They really did not call for only a primary, only to move it earlier. At the time of the commission the primary was in Sept. It took a threatened lawsuit to get it moved to August, the bare minimum needed to allow for absentee ballots to be sent to overseas (read – military) voters.

        • I tend to think they were proven worthless when the last governor was elected.

          Hey, remember that time they endorsed Jerry Janezich to be a U.S. senator?

          that was awesome.

          • Mike Worcester

            Or the time they endorsed Alan Quist over a sitting governor who was seeking a second term? (Arne Carlson for those not familiar with 1994 Minnesota politics).

          • Those were interesting times. That’s around the time I ran the political unit at MPR. Back then, the insiders of the party were out of step with the main street Republicans, just before the far right took over the party and purged the moderates.

          • MrE85

            “Those were interesting times..”

            Understatement of the day. Watching the Grunseth and Hatch campaigns come apart in the 11th hour is one of the wildest things I have seen. Our politics are a bit like sports — there are just enough upsets to keep things interesting.

          • BJ

            90% of incumbents win. Of the 10% that lose, 90% are outspent by a significant margin. Usually by a second time challenger. Many of those are least partly self financed (congress).

            It’s why the press covers finance reports. It is a significant indicator of success or failure in political campaigns.

            Of the 1% left of the 10 percent, nearly all are well known figures – celebrities of a style.

          • Barton

            That was the last time I voted for the IR – Go Arne!

          • IR.

            Boy, there’s a blast from the past, eh?

          • Rob

            Buggy whip!

      • MikeB

        I think what happened at the conventions was very newsworthy. Pointless? If you wanted everything wrapped by then, then yes. The coming stories about how the parties are losing power and that change will be forced upon them will be interesting. But only if you care about politics.

        As to news judgement, eye of the beholder I guess. But that happens all the time.

        But interest is up, no doubt. Sensenbrenner’s day time meetings notwithstanding.

    • Ben Chorn

      As a “millennial”, I found that a lot of my peers care about their own politics. They don’t care much about the other side, progress, compromise, or understanding. They care about being right, and in a lot of political discussions there really isn’t a right or wrong answer.

      I can say that if there was a digital (online) “listening session” that there would be more participation, but I don’t think the dialogue would improve.

      • MrE85

        “They don’t care much about the other side…”

        There, in a nutshell, is what’s wrong with America today. It’s not just the “millennials,” either, Plenty of us Olds lack the ability or willingness to have an empathy with people who have different backgrounds or politics than we do. Shame on us for forgetting the meaning of “e pluribus unum.”

  • Kassie

    Talking to my co-workers yesterday, I was astounded by how many didn’t care about what was happening. As State Employees, our livelihoods depend on who is elected, but my co-workers must not see it that way. While we probably vote at a higher rate than most other groups, most of my co-workers don’t seem to really pay attention until the last few months. Me and my union are trying to change that and get people involved more and earlier.

  • RBHolb

    It’s not surprising that people are uninterested in politics when the entire discussion and all of the coverage is about elections, strategy, and fundraising. It’s a very shallow view of the political world.

    Perhaps more people would be interested if the discussion took in a more expansive definition of “politics” to include how we interact and govern ourselves, and what the consequences of that governance are. A discussion about income inequality, for example, can be a fairly predictable, yet boring, rehashing of each party’s stances and talking points. Or, it could be a more interesting discussion of why inequality matters, what it is doing to our society, and is it ever in fact a good thing. It’s still politics, in the broad sense of dealing with the operation of the body politic (the polis), but it’s a more fundamental and probably more important discussion than who said what on Twitter yesterday.

    I don’t want to say that elections are unimportant. The basic questions of why they are important are the ones we should be discussing.

    • X.A. Smith

      It seems like the parties themselves are only interested in elections, strategy, and fundraising, and not governing. This is because money has taken hold of our political process, and until that changes, through legislation, that’s the way the game will be played.

      • RBHolb

        Except that’s the role of parties–raise money and help get theircandidates elected. In any event, waiting for legislation to take the money out of politics strikes me as being a little like hoping for a cooling breeze from plate tectonics.

        I think we, as citizens, need to demand more from elected officials. Don’t let them get away with bland answers to questions (“Do you support a strong military?” “Yes, I do.” “Okay, thank you for your candor.”). Appreciate nuance, insist on explanations, and be willing to ask questions. That assumes, of course, a willingness to listen–for both the official and the citizen.

        We should also be willing to ignore politicians when we need to. Sometimes, direct action (cleaning up the park on our own, for example) will accomplish more than writing letters and going to fora.

        • X.A. Smith

          Agreed. But we could be publicly financing elections. We could limit corporate contributions. We could put more limits on, or end the practice of PACs. We’ve been going in the opposite direction since the 60s, unfortunately.

          An election season could be 6 months long, and cost one tenth of what we spend on them.

  • Al

    It feels like we try to get engaged, but in the end have very little power to actually change any policy. Town halls are great press (sometimes), but I don’t believe they actually impact policy.

  • Sonny T

    This should be a major embarrassment for the the congressman, not the voter. What’s he doing in these tiny towns? What’s he accomplishing?

    • I suppose it’s a commentary on the times when a congressman who represents small towns actually going there is considered a major embarrasment.

      Basically, he’d just be staying in Milwaukee.

      • Sonny T

        Parts of his district would have a half million people in a twenty mile radius. That’s where he should go.

        Visiting a tiny town is honorable. But again and again and again? Once more, what’s he accomplishing?

        • RBHolb

          He’s showing that he is trying to engage with all of his constituents, not just the ones in the large population centers.

          • Sonny T

            I’d like to see politicians go the the “enemy camp” and have a town hall meeting. That’s just plain fun.

          • According to the article, he does that.

          • Sonny T

            I have to believe if he engaged a strongly progressive crowd there wouldn’t only be a few polite questions about net neutrality.

          • RBHolb

            I’d like to see less about “enemy camps,” or about the entertainment value of these events.

          • Sonny T

            You’ll get more in the street than inside.

          • I presume he still stops at the local cafes and such

          • Sonny T

            He’s eating in them 🙂

        • Has he been to that town a lot?

  • Jerry

    I think a lot of people are turned off by the “inside baseball” aspect of so much politics and political reporting, where the only concern is about who is “winning” as opposed to politics as policies that actually affect their lives.

  • Rob

    I would say that most people do indeed care about political outcomes. Do people care about which candidate is ahead or behind in the polls on any given day, or whether candidate X is spending more on negative political ads than candidate Y, or how many babies candidate Z kissed at a campaign rally? Not so much.

    • Yeah…policy and politics have become two separate things.

  • lindblomeagles

    I don’t have very many facts, but, to me, I’d have to say people are not interested in politics. They hold certain viewpoints and identify with one party. They expect their congressionals to hold the same viewpoints and to not let the other party win. In this regard, people are just as shallow as the politicians people complain about. And few Americans, if any at all, are willing to say, “That’s a good idea,” or “You’re right. My guy is promoting a bad brand of politics,” or “Maybe I should switch parties or support a third party since I have such a low viewpoint of the two parties.