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Study: Commuting Adversely Affects Political Engagement


Okay. We all know about the partisan divide in this country - Democrats, Republicans - but there's another political divide. Part of the country is very engaged in the political process and part is not.


Older Americans, richer Americans and better educated Americans are more likely to be politically engaged. Now researchers have found one more factor that seems to shape political engagement, the length of your commute. It comes to our attention as MORNING EDITION focuses on commuting.

INSKEEP: NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam has been looking into this. Hi, Shankar.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Okay. So why would commuting affect my interest in politics?

VEDANTAM: Well, there have been two different trends over the last several decades, Steve. Researchers have noted that fewer Americans are connecting in civic ways or in political ways. Simultaneously, Americans have been commuting ever longer numbers of hours. So compared to 1990, Americans commuted about 42 million hours in that year. Now it's upwards of 56 million hours per year.


VEDANTAM: Now, a group of researchers is asking, is it possible there's a connection between those two trends. I spoke with Joshua Johnson. He's a PhD student at Stonybrook University, along with Professor Benjamin Newman of the University of Connecticut and another graduate student, Patrick Lown. They found that the length of your commute seems to shape your political engagement.

JOSHUA JOHNSON: The effect was pretty significant. We found that when people spent more time commuting (unintelligible) extra hours on their commute, that made then less likely to be engaged in politics.

INSKEEP: Less likely to be involved. Shankar, is that just a factor of time, that people don't have time when they have long commutes to get involved in politics?

VEDANTAM: You know, for many years political scientists thought that was the case, Steve, but it turns out that actually isn't the case, because the more time people spend at work, for example, is not connected with lower political engagement. So the amount of time you're involved with different activities does not necessarily affect political engagement.

There's something about commuting in particular that seems to affect engagement, and the researchers are drawing here on this paper on earlier work by the behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman. He's found that commuting ranks among the most unpleasant parts of people's day. There's something uniquely stressful about commuting, and so when you get home after a hellacious day, you really have nothing to give to other people in terms of civic engagement, in terms of getting involved in your neighborhood politics.

And so when you don't have the psychological resources to do it, you don't do it.

INSKEEP: Are all people affected the same way by this stress?

VEDANTAM: So this is a really important point, Steve, because it turns out that even though there's a general connection between political engagement and commuting, the effect is not experienced evenly by everyone. Commuting disproportionately seems to cause the poor to disengage from politics. And as we go up the income ladder, the effects that commuting have on political engagement actually decrease until we get to the very wealthy, where the longer your commute, the more likely you are to be politically engaged.

INSKEEP: Why would that be? You're saying that wealthy people may well have a stressful commute, but somehow they can handle it better and have enough excess capacity, excess energy for politics.

VEDANTAM: So here's what Johnson and the other researchers think is going on. Commuting is stressful for everyone, but the poor find it harder to buffer themselves against the effects of the stress. When you're well off, you come home from a terrible day, you can go out for dinner. You can buy yourself a treat. When you're poor, you have less access to those kinds of safety nets.

In fact, the researchers think that richer Americans might spend their commuting time engaging with politics, listening to the news, which is why for the richer Americans, the more time you spend commuting, the more engaged you get with politics.

INSKEEP: And let's remember, we're talking statistically here. I'm sure there are plenty of people listening who don't seem to fit any of the statistical categories that we are talking about here. This is the general pattern researchers find. So is this actually having an effect on who wins elections?

VEDANTAM: You know, it's hard to say, Steve. There's certainly disparities in who shows up to vote in elections, and Johnson thinks that the effects of commuting might indeed be having an effect on our politics. Here he is again.

JOHNSON: Low income individuals are already underrepresented in politics, and if this commuting is having an effect of isolating them even more from politics, the outcomes of that would be pretty bad.

VEDANTAM: So I think the study raises some pretty big questions, Steve. If commuting is rising and the effects of commuting on political engagement are disproportionately felt by the poor and working class, who's left in the political arena to make all the decisions?

INSKEEP: The people with money.

VEDANTAM: Exactly.

INSKEEP: NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam. Thanks, as always.

VEDANTAM: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: You can follow him on Twitter @HiddenBrain. You follow this program @MorningEdition and @NPRInskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.