Opinion: Trump has brought 'stratospheric' interest to American politics

David Shribman

North Conway, N.H. — Say this if nothing else for President Donald 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 cared about what committees of the House of Representatives were up to.

President Donald Trump

Today Americans are transfixed with politics — and at the very same time exasperated and exhausted by politics. 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 two out of three Americans use social media at least once a day. 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.

The same poll had an even more astonishing, and more significant finding: Today 87% of Americans rate politics important in their lives.

The rate of Americans voting in last year’s midterm congressional elections 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 Bill Clinton won his Senate acquittal; that year 41.8% of Americans voted.

"The interest in this election is beyond belief," said James Carville, the veteran Democratic political consultant. "The interest isn’t unusual. It is stratospheric."

"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.

The struggle for the Democratic nomination here and in Iowa, site of the first caucuses, remains in flux. Four candidates — former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., remain in a top tier of candidates. 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.

Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., left, gestures as former Vice President Joe Biden, center, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., watch before a Democratic presidential primary debate, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019, in Atlanta.
Democratic presidential candidate South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during a fundraiser for the Nevada Democratic Party, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019, in Las Vegas.

That’s because here in the Granite State a new dynamic is taking hold that has the possibility to scrambling all the assumptions.

This race already was unusual because of the presence of two candidates  from states bordering New Hampshire, Sens. Warren (of Massachusetts) and Sanders (of Vermont). In a primary with a history of favoring candidates from neighboring states, from Sen. John 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 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 potential 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?

David Shribman is former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.