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Tuning Out: Americans on the Edge of Politics

Untethered from partisan politics and uninterested in keeping up with political news, here is how some Americans view the current state of U.S. politics.

In a fractious political environment often dominated by the loudest voices on the left and right, some people are saying: Count us out.

Last year, we talked to a group of people who, while they may vote, are not strongly attached to either political party. They don’t closely follow news about politics or government, though some feel guilty when they don’t. By and large, they look at the nation’s politics as a topic better avoided than embraced.

With the first votes of the 2024 election about to be cast, these are people whose voices are largely overlooked. Last May, we conducted six focus groups of adults who have soured on politics and political news. Here’s what they told us:

How we did this

This piece is based on six focus groups conducted in May 2023. A total of 27 Americans participated in the focus groups and were offered an incentive for participation. Researchers prepared a topical discussion guide, and a moderator guided participants through the session.

The quotes featured throughout this piece are meant to provide context and broadly illustrate the themes that were discussed in the groups. Quotations are not meant to be representative of all adults who say they do not follow political news. They have been lightly edited for readability. For more information about how the groups were recruited and conducted, refer to the methodology.

They have a sense that politics is everywhere – and often in a bad way. They find themselves overwhelmed by how much information they confront in their day-to-day life.

“I feel like you can’t escape it. You get mailings, you get commercials. It’s just always there.”

– Woman, 30s, Democratic-leaning

“Go on Facebook and politics stuff just pops up. No matter where you go on the internet, there’s always some kind of ad or something that pops up [having] to do with politics.”

– Man, 30s, Republican-leaning

“You don’t know what to believe; it’s so much information to soak in that you sometimes don’t know if it’s true or not.”

– Woman, 50s, Nonpartisan

“I don’t want to watch the news all the time, but I can’t stand not knowing what’s going on.”

– Man, 50s, Democratic-leaning

“When I was young, I remember politics was hearing my parents talk about it, hearing about it on the news, on TV, and then reading about it like once a day in the newspaper. But now it’s like you cannot get away from it. It’s in conversations with people and if you don’t want to have conversations with people, well, it’s on Twitter [X] and it’s on Facebook.”

– Woman, 30s, Republican-leaning

Many – but not all – of these people vote. While they acknowledge they could be more engaged with following politics, many say they have no desire to, or say it’s important to avoid the topic to protect their mental health.

“You just get tired of the arguing and bickering back and forth and watching political ads during election season. They just kind of put you off too. So, I’m still gonna vote but I don’t see myself getting more engaged in the process.”

– Man, 50s, Democratic-leaning

“With certain topics, I wish I was a little bit more engaged, but I try not to cross those boundaries just because I don’t feel like dealing with the different opinions sometimes. I can’t deal with the notifications 24/7, so I try to stay away from it.”

– Woman, 20s, Nonpartisan

“I feel like if I could get my voice out there more, I would be more involved. But it’s just hard. I’m not one of the important people, you know what I mean?”

– Woman, 40s, Republican-leaning

“I’d like to do better [with my own political engagement]. Because sometimes I feel like, well, I have a cousin that always wants to talk politics and sometimes she just comes out of left field and I’m like, ‘What is that? I haven’t heard that. Wait, what!?’”

– Woman, 60s, Democratic-leaning

“It can really affect your mental health. You start getting into heated conversation going back and forth with somebody over something you really can’t control. There’s just no point in that.”

– Man, 40s, Republican

Most are frustrated with the two parties. They often don’t feel represented by either party or feel that the parties are too extreme. And while some would prefer for there to be no parties at all, others wish there were more than two.

“See we don’t live in a true democracy anymore when it’s only between two [parties]. Yes, you can run for president under other political parties, but you’re never gonna win unless you’re Republican or Democrat. So as far as that goes, I feel like it’s more of a democracy with an illusion of choice.”

– Woman, 40s, Republican-leaning

“I hate the fact that you’re forced to pick between the lesser of two evils when voting. No, I don’t want either of them. Next.”

– Man, 20s, Nonpartisan

“Originally the idea is that we vote for them, that they should act on behalf of the people. But once they all get in the office, it’s all about themselves. It’s never about us. Doesn’t matter what party.”

– Man, 50s, Democrat

“I believe that a lot of politicians do go into it with good intentions and they think they’re gonna do good and they can do this or that. But then they get involved with the worst politicians. And little by little, I think they just fall in line basically with the others and become one of the group.”

– Woman, 60s, Republican-leaning

Many of the participants pointed to the vitriol and negativity in politics today, noting that there is too much fighting and not enough progress being made on issues that are important to everyday people.

“You know, people really can’t have a good, fair conversation and be decent about it when it comes to politics … they always wanna start an argument about it because no one can see it from the other person’s perspective. So you know they can’t be open-minded and say, ‘Well you have a good point but look at how I see it also.’”

– Man, 40s, Republican

“So when I was younger, you got to hear more about what the politicians stood for and now all you get to hear from one side is how horrible the other one is. But then you don’t know where they actually stand because they’ve spent more time bashing each other.”

– Woman, 60s, Democratic-leaning

“I think it’s crazy how this world revolves around negativity so much, especially the politics. When people are trying to take office, they always have something negative to say about somebody else. No matter if it’s true or not.”

– Man, 30s, Republican-leaning

“It’s stagnant. There’s not a lot of meaningful change going on and there hasn’t been for easily 15 or 20 years. A lot of problems go unsolved for long periods of time.”

– Man, 20s, Democratic-leaning

How would these people change politics? Their ideas run the gamut: While some discussed changes to the Electoral College, term limits or reducing the role of money in politics, others said they simply would like more choices, less negativity and more progress on important issues.

“I think that we need a new third political party, an option for that gray area, and hopefully that gray area would be thinking of our future and actually doing something about it.”

– Man, 20s, Nonpartisan

“I think that anybody should be able to run for any office and it shouldn’t matter who’s funding you.”

– Woman, 40s, Republican-leaning

“I would like to see a more educated voting populace of whatever issue they vote on. I would like to think they know the issues and I don’t think they do.”

– Man, 50s, Democratic-leaning

“I think the Electoral College ought to be changed for the presidential election. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, and I would get rid of it. It should just be based on the amount of votes.”

– Woman, 60s, Republican-leaning

“I think it’s logistically not possible at all. But I would say for one election campaign, take all of the funding from everyone. Or at least cap it for everyone and put every candidate on equal funding. The views decide the voters.”

– Man, 20s, Republican-leaning

For more about how we did this, read the essay’s methodology. For more about how the general public feels about these topics, refer to “Americans’ Dismal Views of the Nation’s Politics.”

Note: This essay is designed to be a snapshot of how some Americans who are not particularly engaged with politics feel about the system. These focus group participants do not necessarily represent the broader population of all less engaged Americans.

This publication is a collaborative effort based on the input and analysis of the following individuals: Carroll Doherty, Jocelyn Kiley, Hannah Hartig, Gabe Borelli, Rebecca Leppert, David Kent, Andrea Caumont, Claire Dannenbaum, Andy Cerda, Shanay Gracia and Katy Lin (former intern).

Illustrations by Christian Northeast. Design, production and web development by Alissa Scheller, Reem Nadeem and Chris Baronavski.