10/03/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Time for politics

How much time have you spent reading the Huffington Post or other political blogs today? More generally, how much time do you spend in a typical day or week informing yourself or thinking about politics?

In this election season it's especially relevant to consider the levels of political participation in the US. We often think of this in terms of voter registration or turnout. Here I'm more concerned with day-to-day political engagement, the time we regularly invest in educating ourselves about politics.

Measuring time spent on specific activities accurately is harder than it might appear. The method currently preferred by researchers is the 'time diary,' which asks people to retrace their activities over a recent 24 hour period. The most representative time diary data for the U.S. population is the American Time Use Survey (ATUS).

Unfortunately the ATUS does not gather information about time use specifically enough for our purpose. However, it does tell us how much time people in the U.S. report watching TV, reading, socializing, and using a computer outside of work. Assuming that most people find out about politics in these ways, we can make some reasonable guesses from the ATUS data.

Suppose that people on average devote ten percent of their total time spent on these activities (e.g. watching TV) to learning about politics. That works out to a little less than half an hour per day. If the average proportion is much larger, say twenty-five percent, then the average is a little more than an hour. To put this in context, consider that we spend on average nearly an hour shopping and almost two hours on household chores every day. And we spend nearly four hours on paid work; among those who are employed, the average is close to eight hours. (See 'Notes' below for details.)

These estimates are averages across the entire U.S. population. Regular readers of the Huffington Post likely spend more than an hour every day informing themselves about politics, and there are probably other large differences by education, income, and so on. But that by itself should give us pause in the context of universal franchise. We are all supposed to count equally as citizens. To all the other real world distortions of that ideal, do we need to add socioeconomic inequalities in time spent on politics?

Assuming that my estimates are reasonable, it appears that most of us spend relatively little time on politics. Is that because of apathy, laziness, complacence, or simply lack of interest? Are we really consumers first rather than citizens, as the President's post-9/11 injunction to go shopping implied?

My own guess is that many of us do not realistically have much time for learning and thinking about politics. We have to spend many hours a day making a living and several more sustaining our relationships with family and friends, not to mention maintaining our homes. Simply juggling paid work and everything else is a major challenge. Who has the time for politics? This is not to take away from our individual responsibility; each of us should make the time if we are serious about democracy. Still, it may be too much to expect most of us to do this on top of all the other labors and pleasures of daily life.

This demotion of politics in our hierarchy of priorities is reflected in the scholarly research. Sociologists and economists pay a great deal of attention to the issue of "work-family conflict," or the competing time demands of employment and family life. This is clearly a critical issue. However, when we frame the time shortage problem solely in terms of work-family conflict, we are assuming that the most important challenge we face is reconciling the various demands of our individual and family lives. This conception leaves out entirely our interests and responsibilities as democratic citizens, our public, collective lives.

So we come to this paradox: we are free to think, to learn, to speak, to vote, to be political in the broadest sense of being engaged meaningfully with our society. But what do these freedoms actually mean when we do not have or make the time to exercise them regularly? If democracy is not just a set of freedoms established in the Constitution, but the real practice of exercising them, then the time we spend on politics regularly is vital to democracy's health. We might say it is fundamental to its very meaning.


I obtained these estimates from the 2006 ATUS. Here is a chart of the leisure time data from which I obtained the estimates, and here is a table with more detail. Ten percent of the total average time spent watching TV, reading, socializing, using a computer for leisure, and other leisure activities is 27 minutes; twenty-five percent is 68 minutes. I included the 'other' category because it includes activities such as listening to the radio. Here is a list of the ATUS time use categories. These data were obtained from a sample of individuals age 15 and over, include all days of the week, and are annual averages for the entire year.

Some caveats: First, my crude estimates may understate the actual average time spent learning about politics because they are based only on leisure time and do not include time spent at work reading blogs, the news, or talking about politics with coworkers. Second, it is possible that they would be higher in other years with major political events such as national elections. Finally, I have not included time spent on organizational or other kinds of active political involvement. The average time spent every day on all forms of non-religious volunteer activity is about 8 minutes. It is much higher, about 2 hours, among the 7 percent of the population that reports spending any time on such activity.