The Myth of Civic Engagement During Trump’s Presidency

Since President Donald Trump’s election, countless news stories have touted massive increases in civic engagement. We’ve read that Trump is “Reviving American Democracy” and “Driving New Political Engagement.” An opinion piece in The Atlantic says he’s “triggered a systemic immune response in the body politic.” Another in The Washington Post reports Trump’s “most striking accomplishment so far … [is] one of the greatest surges of American citizen action in half a century.”

These stories illustrate an increasingly popular narrative: The Trump presidency has set the stakes so high and made politics so important to people’s daily lives that Americans are becoming politically active and aware in record numbers.

The evidence for this narrative seems obvious. Just look at the record-setting Women’s March, the March for Science, and the many “resistance” groups that have sprouted up around the country. The media can even point to their own sky-high ratings for proof of greater political consciousness.

In many ways the American public is just as disengaged now as it was before Trump’s election.

Unfortunately, traditional metrics tell a more lackluster story. The American public continues to exhibit low awareness of major national news stories and national figures. Voters in New Jersey and Virginia know little about their major gubernatorial candidates, just like in previous elections. There was no evidence of any increase (and even some evidence of a decrease) in civic action in fall 2016 compared to spring 2016. There was almost record low turnout in the Los Angeles mayoral election in March 2017. And there were extremely low turnout rates in most special elections earlier this year as well. Taken together, these patterns suggest that in many ways the American public is just as disengaged now as it was before Trump’s election.

Behavioral science research also challenges the logic that when the stakes are high, civic engagement is also high. In fact, this is (often) a myth. While some people become more engaged once they see how political issues are relevant to their interests and values, others become disengaged precisely because they view political issues as relevant to their interests and values.

How could personal relevance lead to less engagement? In short, because it highlights our constraints. In many cases, the stakes involved directly relate to time and money constraints that people face in their personal lives or the impact of their voice in the political process. At moments like these, political rhetoric calling attention to what’s at stake makes people feel poorer and less efficacious, which reduces engagement.

For instance, I conducted several experiments on civic engagement related to health care reform from 2009 to 2012. I found that among people who lack health insurance, large medical bills were not automatically salient whenever they were asked to contribute money to an organization advocating for health care reform. However, solicitations that referenced the high cost of health care led people to think about their personal financial burdens, which made them feel poorer and donate less. Consistent with research on the psychology of scarcity, my findings underscore how people’s perceptions of what they can afford depend upon whatever other demands on their resources are salient at that moment.

Comparing these findings with the recent surge in activism in response to efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) underscores something critical as well: It is much more difficult to motivate activism based on relieving current struggles (as in 2009 when the ACA was introduced in Congress) versus averting the threat of future struggles (as in 2017 when Republicans tried to repeal the ACA).

People can become disengaged precisely because they view political issues as relevant to their interests and values.

We’d expect similar patterns when asking people to volunteer time (such as canvassing door-to-door), and when the stakes remind them of their own time pressures. For example, many people support expanded public transit because it promises to relieve traffic congestion. Yet this means that people view the stakes of the issue as directly related to a large drain on their time—how much time they spend stuck in traffic between the grocery store and work and the doctor’s office. We’d thus expect that solicitations for volunteers that reference these stakes will reduce volunteering.

We even see this effect in situations in which the stakes are more fundamental to democracy: voting.

In 2016 Robyn Stiles at Louisiana State University and I conducted field experiments to examine how calling attention to political inequality impacts people’s interest in registering to vote. We used several common phrases like, “the system is rigged,” “wealthy buying elections”, and “your voice is not yet being heard.” We found that framing the decision to vote in these ways reduces feelings of power and, in turn, also reduces interest in participating in the electoral process. Yet we also found that the rhetoric was persuasive in the sense that people saw it as a clear violation of equality. The fact that it’s persuasive no doubt accounts for its prevalence in the first place, yet we should recognize that it may have unintended negative consequences for engagement.

At a time when a large part of the American public remains highly disengaged from public affairs, even after the 2016 election, it is more important than ever that we not only diagnose the problem but also understand the barriers that need to be overcome to solve it.

Recognizing the myth of civic engagement underscores how common forms of political rhetoric may be self-undermining. Precisely because they are persuasive, they reduce people’s desire to spend scarce resources of attention, time, and money on politics. Going forward, as we work to expand civic engagement and help ensure that our democracy lives up to its ideals of equal responsiveness, we can’t assume that simply high stakes will get people to take action. Instead, we should investigate how other influences—such as social factors—foster engagement.