The Election is Distracting Us From the Issues

by Benjamin Studebaker

If you look at any major American news website right now, the lead story (and in some cases nearly all the stories) will be about the 2016 election. This has been true for about a year, and we still have another 6 months or so until November. Initially it feels as if this election coverage is going somewhere useful–candidates choose to run on different issues, and that gets us talking about those issues and about the various policy proposals to deal with them. But as time goes on and the field narrows, the candidates stop throwing out new ideas and start going after each other in a prolonged trench war that is more about character attacks than it is about the issues. But this doesn’t bother readers–readers remain far happier to click on election-related content than on any other sort of content. Even reduced purely to soap opera, election politics beats nearly every other kind of politics. Media outlets have caught on to this–because you get more hits and clicks covering the election than you do covering anything else, the media is forced to supply you with an unending stream of political stories, many of which are repetitive and don’t contribute much of value to any sort of public debate, lest they lose market share to competitors.

Let me give you a sense of what this does to the news you consume. Here are the last ten posts I’ve written:

  1. Why the Media Cannot Deal Effectively With Donald Trump–1,154 hits
  2. Donald Trump Gets Something Right: The US Can Avoid Defaults by Printing Money–1,619 hits
  3. What the Arab Spring Teaches Us About Armed Rebellion–985 hits
  4. Four Horses of the Apocalypse US Presidential Election Sim–3,283 hits
  5. Sanders vs Clinton on Economic Inequality–1,065 hits
  6. The DNC Didn’t Screw Bernie, The Voters Did–1,525 hits
  7. How ISAs Allow Rich People to Exploit College Students–1,432 hits
  8. Trump’s Abortion Comments are Consistent with the Anti-Abortion Position–955 hits
  9. Does the Republican Establishment Want Clinton to Win?–2,073 hits
  10. Clinton Supporters are Scaremongering about Donald Trump to Silence the Concerns of the Young and the Poor–26,635 hits

Only 2 of these 10 posts are not tied to the election in some way (Arab Spring and ISAs), and both of those two have fewer than 1,500 hits. There are three more posts that are election-related but also focus heavily on a discrete issues (Abortion, Inequality, Printing Money). Two of those three are at less than 1,500. The five remaining posts are purely about the election (Scaremongering, Establishment, DNC, Four Horses, Media). 4 out of those 5 have more than 1,500, and the only one below 1,500 is my most recent post.

Here’s what the averages look like:

Blog Statistics

Let’s take out “Scaremongering” because it’s an outlier:

Blog Statistics Minus Outlier

If I just write purely about the election, I can get 65% more hits on average. It makes little difference if I couch issue-related posts in election terms. People want to read purely about the political conflict and drama among candidates and within parties, and they will reward me with more hits if I give them that. Now I don’t make money off this website–I don’t advertise, I don’t sell your clicks to anyone. But I still like it when people read what I write, and you can see how this incentive has affected my output–half of my last 10 posts have been purely election-oriented. The most popular post I wrote in the last six months is a purely election-oriented post called Why Bernie vs Hillary Matters More than People Think, which has over 728,000 hits. My all-time most popular post is Britain: For the Love of God, Please Stop David Cameron, a post about the 2015 UK election which has almost 900,000. These are both heavily election-oriented posts, though I worked in some political history in the Bernie/Hillary post and some economics in the Cameron one. Like most writers, I want more of my writing to be read by lots of people and I can observe what gets attention and what doesn’t. Even if the really popular posts are outliers, I know that the only kind of posts that have been really popular are election posts, so if I want a chance at a popular post, it behooves me to write election stuff.

If I’m feeling these incentives, you can bet media outlets that rely on ad revenue are feeling them too. But there’s another reason your feed is covered in election content–the more election content writers generate, the harder it is for anyone to run across interesting articles that aren’t about the election. Writers often get ideas from reading, and so the less election content we collectively produce the harder it is for us to think of non-election content individually. It’s a vicious cycle.

And this is what is really insidious about election content–because it is so popular and because it makes it harder for writers to generate other kinds of ideas, it has a corrosive effect on our ability to engage in more robust and sophisticated political discussions. Political content in election years is stupider than it is the rest of the time. It’s less informative and less useful, and it’s much more repetitive. What’s more, by the end of the election everyone is fatigued with election content, and this fatigue translates into reduced interest in politics in non-election years, making it more difficult for activists to organize people in off-years. The election releases political tension and makes it more difficult for reformers to harness that tension to drive prolonged citizen engagement. This is a chief worry among many Bernie Sanders supporters, and it’s a real worry–by 2017, most of Sanders’ young supporters might be tired, disillusioned, and disengaged. How is Sanders meant to build a lasting political movement if his supporters blow all their political energy engaged in a 2016 race he may not win?

Elections are black holes for political engagement, they drain us and leave us less energized for the prolonged campaigning in off-years that is often more likely to make a real long-term difference. None of this is anyone’s fault–it’s not the public’s fault that it’s drawn toward election content, and it’s not the media’s fault for giving the public what the public will click on and watch. We have a political system that is structured in such a way that it acts as an opiate. None of us chose to structure it this way, and I’m sure that when the American founders decided we were going to have presidential elections every four years they did not anticipate the extent to which elections would prove so dominant. But there is something we could do–shorten the length of our election campaigns. We could compress the primaries and put them later in the calendar.

The 2015 UK election was just 5 months, and the 2015 Canadian election was a mere 11 weeks. Our first presidential campaign formally began on March 23, 2015 more than a year and a half before the November 2016 election. We might not be able to pass campaign laws that directly forbid earlier campaigning (due to the first amendment), but we could heavily discourage it by packing our primaries into the summer immediately prior to the election. We could stick the party conventions in September and run a short 8-week general election campaign. You’d get less sick of reading about the election and I’d get less sick of writing about it, and we’d get to spend more time working together on the issues and policies that matter.