Time is a key variable in politics. It takes time to read up on candidates, to tune in to debates, to follow the news, even simply to form an opinion on the issue of the day (though some of us are able to do this much faster than others). For this reason, political scientists have speculated that the more free time you have, the more attention you can give to politics and public life.
Little wonder, then, that researchers have started thinking about one of society's most ubiquitous time-sucks: the ever-lengthening commute.
An intriguing study in the journal American Politics Research has tried to measure the impact of "the daily grind" on political participation (hat tip to The Monkey Cage). Researchers Benjamin Newman of the University of Connecticut, and Joshua Johnson and Patrick Lown of Stony Brook University, concluded that the amount of time you spend at work – whether it's six hours a day, or twice that – has little impact on your interest and engagement in politics. But the time you spend getting there (and getting home) does.
The longer the commute, the less likely people are to participate in politics through behaviors like voting, frequently talking about politics, or giving to political campaigns. And the authors believe this is a causal relationship, not merely a correlation between people who travel long distances to work and those who live in cloistered bedroom communities.
Newman and his fellow researchers figure the real issue here isn't that time in your car is time you can't spend reading Politico (there is, after all, talk radio). Rather, for most of us, commuting is a miserable, draining experience in a way that our jobs are not. Spend an angry hour idling on the freeway, and that depletes psychological resources that you might otherwise spend engaging in politics. Spend an angry hour idling on the freeway, and you're probably apathetic about a whole lot of things that would alarm sociologists.
In effect, the (negative) quality of this time matters as much as the length of it. And that's why an hour in the car may be more harmful for political participation than an extra hour at your desk.
This connection between crummy commutes and civic disengagement also appears to be particularly true for low-income workers. As Newman and co-authors put it in the paper:
In finding that the negative impacts of commuting are mostly concentrated among those at the lower end of the income distribution, our results suggest that the societal processes increasingly forcing commuting on individuals, and leading to longer commuting times, are working to further distance an already weakly active and often marginalized segment of the populace from the democratic process.
Low-income people stuck in awful commutes, in other words, may be discouraged by those very commutes from voting or fighting for policies that would make their lives (and commutes) better.
The findings were based on data from 590 working adults who participated in the 2005 Citizenship, Involvement, Democracy Survey. That survey (originally of about a thousand people), looked at typical commute times, as well as markers of political engagement like signing a petition, working for a political campaign, or calling a public official. (The researchers also controlled for a host of other variables included in the data, such as education, income, age, political ideology, and tenure in a community.)
There are other, more obvious logistical obstacles to political engagement. Perhaps polling places are hard to reach. Or they require a car that would-be voters don't have. Newman, Johnson and Lown have scaled up this notion to suggest that the design of communities – and the commuting patterns they create – matter as well:
In short, if we are serious about enabling citizens to be more participatory in politics, then we should also discuss what can be done to lessen the day-to- day burdens on citizens that erode the resources necessary for habitual political participation.