NORTH CONWAY, N.H. — Say this if nothing else for President Donald J. Trump: He has made Americans care about politics again.
Gone are the days when politics was a specialist’s game, when eyes rolled and conversation stopped when a president’s name was mentioned at dinner, when only insiders and lobbyists — “cowardly lawyers and wretched babblers,” in Napoleon Bonaparte’s phrase from 1797 — cared about what committees of the House of Representatives were up to.
Today Americans are transfixed with politics — and at the very same time exasperated and exhausted by the subject. Again: The credit, or the blame, goes to Trump.
It has long been a truism that, as Hegel once put it, humankind’s happiest days were written on the blank pages of history, which is to say that periods when not much at all happened were also periods of great contentment. We do not live in such a time.
Our era is full of news, and fighting over the news, and battles over what constitutes news. There are no blank pages for us — not when, according to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll, more than 2 out of 3 Americans use social media at least once a day, producing a crowded page for our age. The president tweeted an average of more than 15 times a day in the first half of this year. The other day, he tweeted about a former American ambassador to Ukraine while she was testifying in the impeachment hearings.
That same Journal/NBC News Poll had an even more astonishing and more significant finding: Today 87% of Americans rate politics important in their lives. In June 1990, just months after Bill Clinton was impeached and then acquitted in a bitter Senate trial, only 50% of Americans considered politics important. The Trump impeachment in the House, which is almost certain, and his trial in the Senate will occur in a vastly different environment.
There’s plenty of evidence to prove that’s true. The rate of Americans voting in last year’s midterm congressional elections, for example, was astonishing; about half of those eligible went to the polls, the highest figure in more than a century. That compares favorably with the rate of voting in the year Clinton won his Senate acquittal; that year, 41.8% of Americans voted.
“The interest in this (2020) election is beyond belief,” said James Carville, the veteran Democratic political consultant. “The interest isn’t unusual. It is stratospheric.”
As crowds here in New Hampshire, site of the first primary, and Iowa, site of the first caucuses, demonstrate, interest is as high now, 11 months from the election, as it customarily is right before the general-election balloting.
“The turnout for the Democratic candidate events has been very high compared to what I have seen with past primaries,” said Linda L. Fowler, a political scientist at Dartmouth College here. “People are energized, but not necessarily committed to a particular candidate.”
Not that all this activity and sense of involvement is creating a country of contentment. The poll showed that 43% of Americans have stopped talking about politics with relatives or close friends with whom they disagree. About a quarter of Americans have blocked or unfriended from Facebook people who hold political views different from theirs.
Nor might all this interest and activity make a difference. In an eye-opening book to be published three weeks before the New Hampshire primary, “Politics Is for Power: How to Move Beyond Politics Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change,” the Tufts University political scientist Eitan Hersh argues that a lot of what passes as political activity here and elsewhere is sound and fury, signifying nothing.
“Voraciously consuming politics or tinkering online seems harmless, but it’s a problem for two main reasons,” Hersh says, arguing that form of politics simply makes things worse. “Our collective treatment of politics as if it were a sport affects how politicians behave. They increasingly believe they benefit from feeding the red meat of outrage to their respective bases, constantly grandstanding for the chance that a video of themselves will go viral. In treating politics like a hobby, we have demanded they act that way.”
The struggle for the Democratic nomination here and in Iowa remains in flux. Four candidates — former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana — remain in the top tier. About half of likely caucus-goers in Iowa indicate they are open to changing their minds before Feb. 3, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll. There is no reason to think that New Hampshire voters are much different.
That’s because here in the Granite State, a new dynamic is taking hold that has the possibility of scrambling all the assumptions.
This race already was unusual because of the presence of two candidates from states bordering New Hampshire, Warren (of Massachusetts) and Sanders (of Vermont). In a primary with a history of favoring candidates from neighboring states — from Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts in 1960 to former Gov. Mitt Romney, also of Massachusetts, in 2012 — that presented an unusual puzzle for pundits and an unusual challenge for political professionals.
But now, with the entry into the race of former Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, there are three New Hampshire neighbors in the primary fight. Unlike the other two, who have invested months and millions in their campaigns, Patrick is just getting started. He has missed the chance to pick up the early support of the activists who can create an organization and a buzz, two vital factors in a state that prizes its position as a political arbiter.
And yet Boston television is an important influence in New Hampshire, and governors — who present budgets, face repeated struggles with state legislators and are the focus of attention during local tragedies and crises — receive more coverage than do senators, whose work is far from local studios and out of the range of Boston television cameras.
That means that Patrick, unlike another late entrant, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, does not enter the race here from a standing start. Thus a new 2020 question: Can the Bloomberg billions compete with memories of Patrick handling transit crises and fighting for casino gambling?
North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.