Usually, but Not Always

Article excerpt

A Report on the Race Gap in Political Interest, 1952 - 2004

In 1986, Professor Stephen E. Bennett wrote what is arguably the leading longitudinal study of political interest-a term describing the extent to which citizens pay attention to what happens in politics. His aptly titled book, Apathy in America, uses surveys from the American National Election Studies (henceforth called the ANES)1 to monitor the decline of political interest from 1960 to 1984. Fearing the dangers of widespread citizen indifference on U.S. democracy, Bennett finds that Americans are generally detached from what goes on in the federal government. This is particularly true for African Americans, who tend to take even less interest in politics than their White neighbors do. Apathy in America concludes with two unsettling messages: First, that Americans are not as politically attentive as they should be, and second, that White people are "usually, but not always" more interested in politics than Black people are (Bennett 1986, 72).2

Bennett's remarks inspired me to study these racial differences in interest levels, differences I refer to throughout this report as constituting a "race gap" in political interest. If African Americans are not always less politically interested than Anglo Americans, then we should examine those times when Blacks' interest levels rise to meet or surpass those for Whites'. Figure 1 doubles the timeframe of Bennett's analysis and plots the interest gap for five decades (1952 - 2004). I compare Blacks' and Whites' responses to two commonly-asked questions from the ANES. The first question measures respondents' general interest in politics:

Some people seem to follow what's going on in government and public affairs most of the time, whether there's an election going on or not. Others aren't that interested. Would you say you follow what's going on in government and public affairs most of the time, some of the time, only now and then, or hardly at all? The second question gauges respondents' interest in the current presidential campaign:Some people don't pay much attention to campaigns. How about you? Would you say that you have been very much interested, somewhat interested, or not much interested in political campaigns (so far) this year?

I combine the responses to these questions into an index that ranges from zero (weak political interest) to one (strong interest). The solid line in Figure 1 traces the trends in political interest among African American respondents in the ANES, while the fragmented line displays interest patterns for the White respondents.

One of the strongest findings in Figure 1 is that the political interest trends for African Americans resemble those for Whites.3 Regardless of race, the same visual pattern persists: Interest in politics ebbs in the early 1950s and bottoms out in the late 1950s to early 1960s. Then, interest rises to a peak in the mid 1960s, where it plateaus until the mid 1970s. Political interest drops off temporarily in the late 1970s and increases in fluctuations from the 1980s to the end the period. A closer look at Figure 1 reveals some small but predictable racial differences in levels of political interest. Whites generally express greater interest in politics than Blacks do, a pattern that holds for most of the survey years.4 These results, while impressionistic, generally show that White-over-Black differences in political interest levels are the rule rather than the exception.

But the exceptions to the rule are what I find most fascinating. After all, Bennett rightly notes that Whites are "not always" more politically attentive than Blacks are, and spikes in political interest among African Americans tend to correspond with important racial events in America's political history. For example, interest levels among African Americans spike in 1964, and, for the first time, the average level of Blacks' political interest was slightly higher than the average for White Americans. …