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The Confusion About the U.S. Economy Reveals Everything About Politics Today

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The U.S. economy is doing better. But President Joe Biden does not appear to be benefitting. His approval remains flat to declining. Biden has trailed Trump by about two percentage points consistently since October.

Many pundits ask: when will Biden start to benefit from an improving economy?

They are asking the wrong question. Presidential approval once corresponded to changing economic conditions. This link is now broken. It probably has been for two decades. Biden’s 2024 chances do not depend on the economy.

This is bad news for our democracy. It means that performance doesn’t matter for presidential incumbents. This undermines a fundamental premise of accountability.

This de-linking between economic performance and presidential approval follows from changes in partisanship and media. As the public has become more polarized, and media more fragmented, political reality has split into three: a Democratic Reality, a Republican Reality, and a Politically Disengaged Reality.

In the Democratic Reality, Democrats are the good people, and Republicans are the bad people. When a Democrat like Joe Biden is in the White House, the Democratic Reality has confidence in the administration. Biden and his administration deserve credit for the good news in the economy and the world more broadly. Bad news, like a rough economic patch, however, is not Biden’s  fault. They are due to circumstances beyond his control, and he and his administration are doing the best they can.

Sometimes, Democratic Reality will be critical of Biden and his administration. But the starting premise in Democratic Reality is that Biden’s doing the best he can, and nobody is perfect. And good news should be shared and discussed widely. In Democratic Reality, Biden’s approval remains high. It has nothing to do with the economy.

In Republican Reality, Democrats are the enemy, and Republicans are the heroes. In Republican Reality, as long as Joe Biden is in the White House, America is at risk (though at risk of what depends on the day or week). If anything bad happens, it is clearly Biden’s fault. If anything good happens, it is in spite of Biden. But mostly, Republican Reality tries to ignore the good things that happen, and focus on all the bad things.

In Republican Reality, disapproval of Joe Biden is a first premise. The rest of reality must be made to fit that first premise. This means that among Republicans, approval of Joe Biden will always be in the single digits. The same can be said of any Democrat. It has nothing to do with the economy.

But there is also a third reality: The Politically Disengaged Reality. In this reality, Politics and political events exist on the margins, only occasionally interjecting themselves into awareness. This is the reality where news comes through TikTok, Instagram, and other social media. It is a reality where other passions—pop culture, Sports, video Games, etc—dominate attention. It is a reality for people who don’t care about Politics. Increasingly, it’s full of people who feel like the whole system is so corrupt and broken that there is no point in being engaged. There is plenty of evidence to suggest they might be right.

In Politically Disengaged Reality, little political news breaks through. Mostly it’s bad news, since bad news is stickier and more interesting than good news. CoNFLict also breaks through, since coNFLict is more interesting than compromise. Bad news and coNFLict also confirms the pre-existing expectations of those who inhabit this reality: that American Politics is deeply broken. Nobody represents them; nobody cares about them. Strong anti-system vibes infuse this reality. I call the voters who inhabit this reality “Shrug Emoji Voters.”

These “Shrug Emoji Voters”  sometimes vote, and sometimes don’t. They can be convinced to vote against a candidate they see as a major threat. And they might even get excited about a new candidate, especially a fresh new face (hope springs eternal). But fresh faces constantly disappoint. And once a politician disappoints, there are few second chances. Approval ratings steadily dry up among this group. Like a desert, very little will grow on barren soil once it cracks and craters. If the economy is doing better, they will be the last to know and attribute it to Joe Biden.

It wasn’t always this way. In an earlier era, the realities were much more overlapping because the parties themselves were more overlapping. We once had something more like a four-party system, with liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, alongside conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. More voters were open to at least supporting either party.

And the news environment was less fragmented. Most people read a local paper and a national news magazine, and they saw the same political news, more or less. They could give it a Republican spin or a Democratic spin, but it was still the same news.  Even if you weren’t particularly interested in politics, you still had to get the local newspaper to read the sports scores or the movie listings. It was harder to avoid national political news because you still saw the front page, even if you skipped past it.

Now, Democrats and Republicans are more socially and geographically segregated than ever before, and this social and geographic segregation is amplified and exacerbated by the fragmented media landscape It is easier than ever to construct your own reality through À la carte media consumption.

It is also easier than ever to avoid political news altogether, and to thus remain completely ignorant of the state of the economy, or the state of the world. And it may be more rational to do so today, as well. Most of the news is bad. Especially in an era in which each individual article gets its own web-traffic stats, coNFLict-driven, emotional content is more prized than ever.

Tell me what you think about Joe Biden, and I’ll tell you what you’re going to think of the economy in October. If you like Biden, you’ll like the economy. If you don’t like Biden, you won’t like the economy. People already know what they think. They can now choose the reality to reflect what they already think. LOL. Nothing matters. Shrug.

The era of shared media is not coming back anytime soon. Our best hope lies in more overlapping partisan realities, through more political parties. With two separate partisan realities, the world splits apart. With multiple overlapping partisan realities, perspectives can shift. Different citizens can find different points of entry. We don’t have to agree on everything. But we should at least be able to agree that the world is complex, with multiple perspectives. When reality is bifurcated, politics becomes zero-sum and destructive. If our side is always good, and their side is always bad, the compromise necessary for a healthy democracy becomes impossible.

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