The Surprising Links Between Your Commute and Political Apathy

The commute. No matter where you live, but especially if you live in a large metropolitan area, the commute is dreaded. The reasons are obvious and universal; there is no point in expounding upon them here.

Beyond the fact that commuting is, in general, one of least pleasurable aspects of modern life, it also appears to have an effect on peoples' engagement with politics and their level of political involvement or apathy. Combining insights from political science and behavioral economics, new research shows the (surprising) effects of the daily commute on Americans:

Among lower income Americans, a longer commute leads to a significant erosion of interest in politics, and this in turn leads to significant decreases in participation. Among higher income Americans however, the relationship is reversed; increased time spent commuting among those with the highest income is found to significantly enhance interest, which in turn, increases levels of participation.

This actually makes some sense in light of previous research combined with some short logical leaps. First, there is research out there that shows being poor "makes you dumb." That a colloquialism for this: being a lower-income American strains your "cognitive resources" (it stresses you out) so that you have less brain power to spend thinking about things other than the basics. Given this, it is not surprising that poor Americans have less time to ponder politics, and, for that matter, be politically involved.

Contrast that to wealthier individuals. First, we know that working more (whether poor or rich) does not have same affect -- politically apathy -- as the commute does. That is, this is not simply a "free-time" issue; there is something about the commute that affects individuals.

But why not wealthy ones? Well, we also know that higher-income Americans are more likely to vote and that politicians are more responsive to affluent voters' preferences than lower SES Americans. Thus, they have more incentive perhaps to listen to NPR or conservative talk-radio on their commute, keeping them dialed in on a daily basis (perhaps two doses a day).

This new research on the impact of commuting also has implications as cities are gentrifying and increasingly becoming too expensive for the poor to live in -- the reverse of the "white flight" of the 1950s through 1970s. Lower-income Americans are being priced out of the more desirable, closer-in areas and being pushed out to the suburbs. This trend might only exacerbate the ability of low-income Americans to pay attention to, never mind participate in, politics, starting a vicious cycle where politicians have even less of a reason to take into account lower income voters' policy preferences. The link is both surprising and a bit troublesome.

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