Americans love to hate their politics

In the 2018 midterm elections, 50% of eligible U.S. citizens turned out to vote. Because Americans are always less inclined to show up at the polls in years when the presidency isn’t on the ballot, half of the nation feeling sufficiently motivated to vote was a remarkable event. Heading into this year, the question among political scientists and other analysts was whether the 2018 surge would prove to be a one-time spike or reflect a more enduring change in citizen behavior.

Now the votes are nearly all in, even in the habitually slow-counting states of California and Arizona, and we have an answer: According to data collected by Michael P. McDonald of the University of Florida, an estimated 47% of eligible voters cast ballots in 2022. And the questions are what explains this change, and what it means.

First, the history. That 47% is a slight decrease from 2018, but it’s still notable. Aside from 2018, according to McDonald’s data, turnout has not reached 50% in any midterm contest in the 100 years since women were granted the right to vote in 1920. In fact, except for 2018, turnout hasn’t been as strong in a midterm election since 1970 — just before the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18. The turnout rate was even higher in states with traditions of robust civic engagement or especially competitive races this year, reaching 55% in Pennsylvania, 59% in Michigan, 60% in Wisconsin, and 61% in Maine, Minnesota and Oregon.

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The record turnout of 2018 was explained at the time as one of many unique consequences of Donald Trump’s election. Trump wasn’t the only recent president who provoked angry citizens to build a national movement to defeat his partisan allies in a congressional midterm election; the anti-Trump “Resistance” resembled similar countermobilizations during the presidencies of Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. But Trump’s distinctive ability to galvanize his supporters — even in an election in which he wasn’t on the ballot — appeared to produce high turnout among his own party as well, allowing Republicans to gain seats in the Senate even as they lost control of the House.

It made sense to view the voting boom in 2018 as a logical response to the ascent of a president who dominated the political world like no other figure in memory, producing unusually strong emotional responses among adherents and detractors alike. But that explanation just makes the continued surge in 2022 more puzzling.

President Joe Biden not only fails to stimulate the unprecedented personal fascination that Trump inspired on both sides, but he also lacks even the symbolic or charismatic importance of other immediate predecessors such as Obama, Bush and Clinton. Biden hasn’t attracted a visible legion of passionate devotees, nor has he inspired his opponents to form a successor to the Tea Party movement.

In other words, what drove Americans to the polls last month probably wasn’t Joe Biden.

A likelier explanation is that we have entered an age in which politics has become an unusually focal element of American life. Even after Trump’s departure from office, political issues and conflicts have remained central topics of national interest and discussion. And as the perpetual competition for office between Democrats and Republicans becomes increasingly associated with wider national debates over the direction of American culture and the status of American democracy, the perceived stakes of even non-presidential elections seem to be on the rise.

When turnout rates started to decline in the 1980s and 1990s, concerned observers often argued that this mass withdrawal from politics reflected popular distrust of government and disillusionment with politics. But participation levels have rebounded in the last few elections without a corresponding improvement in Americans’ views of government. Instead, the increased sharpening of party differences has convinced more and more citizens that they should really care which side gains political power. Even in the increasing number of states and districts where there isn’t much competition, Americans still increasingly feel motivated to express themselves by heading to the polls.

That is the silver lining, if there is one, of today’s bitter, culturally charged partisan warfare: It has made civic engagement more meaningful for millions of citizens, proving that — for all its other problems — polarization can be the antidote to political apathy.

David A. Hopkins is an associate professor of political science at Boston College and the author of “Red Fighting Blue: How Geography and Electoral Rules Polarize American Politics.

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