‘Tell me how you are doing these days.” That’s the question I recently asked of the 450 American voters I hear from every week.
Their answer: They are burned out.
“I am just freaking exhausted from the constant stress in our country,” said Michael, a Republican from Nebraska. “I mean, how much more screaming and yelling can we take?” Most people — no matter where they are on the political spectrum — are weary: sick of politics, sick of our president and his antics, and especially sick of the divisiveness in our country.
Lisa, from North Carolina, voted for Trump because she was desperate for change. Now, she’s fried. “I have never been so sick of politics except for when my father and great aunt argued over Watergate many, many years ago,” she said. She is turning off her TV, paying less attention to social media, avoiding political conversations with her co-workers, and hoping that it all gets better. “I supported Trump, but had no idea that he would be soooo unpresidential,” she wrote. “I knew he wasn’t a politician — which I felt we needed — but he was not my first choice. While I don’t like political correctness, I do expect a higher maturity level and better verbal restraint. Trump went from being tolerable to just annoying and embarrassing, and that has added to my fatigue.”
Other Trump voters have similar sentiments. As Jim from Maryland told me, “I feel so much emotional wear and tear from hearing about the daily drama in the White House that I am starting to ignore it.” Democrats, clearly unhappy with the president, are just as frustrated with what they see as the disintegration of our national narrative. “The shouting is pervasive,” said Arnold, a Democrat from California. “Trump says something that I think is racist, and then I turn on the TV, only to be subjected to panels of pundits arguing about whether it is racist or not. It’s madness.”
The fatigue is manifested in our daily lives. Jane, a psychologist from Minnesota, says that she sees people gunnysacking — quietly accumulating their annoyances until they build up to a breaking point, and then unloading them all at once in a rush, overreacting to the comment that pushed them over the edge. Courtney, a Republican from Indiana, said, “It takes tremendous energy for me to keep everything inside, and I worry that some day I will be at work and lose my job when I just explode with frustration. I saw it last week in a nice restaurant when some woman just completely lost it.”
Others, who haven’t given up, feel alone. Marvin, a Democrat from New Hampshire, explained, “I am disappointed in Trump, but also increasingly disappointed in the country as a whole. While I did not vote for Trump, I don’t think the Democrats should be rewarded for simply being the lesser of two evils. We just lack courageous leaders across all institutions in this country. I think our country doesn’t have a soul, few know what sacrifice or service really is, and most care (and vote) for what’s in their personal best interest. Honestly, I feel increasingly isolated because I don’t just go along with it.” Mark, a Republican from Utah, said he is depressed, and he blames “our boorish president,” adding that “the Democrats are being as combative as he is. Something has to change or we will be in this cycle for a long time.” Evan, a college student from Virginia, reported that he and his friends are “basically desensitized to national politics because of the divisiveness.”
So what? There’s a significant cost to these feelings. In business, burnout happens when employees feel that they are putting in more than they are getting out, when they feel that their views don’t matter, when they don’t get the right kind of leadership from the top. A dangerous negativity pervades the work environment. When the culture of a business erodes, the entire organization loses its vitality, and performance drops.
In my research, voters see the same thing in politics: Most believe that the culture of America — and much that we hold dear — is eroding. In the absence of leadership that wants to bring us together, most wonder whether it’s worth being engaged anymore or whether their voices even matter. They stick with people who agree with them, media that reinforce their point of view, and look down at their iPhones for comfort. They lose the initiative and energy to research whether their news is fake. They find it easier to focus on Stormy Daniels than the storm in Syria. They are increasingly aware of their own passiveness — and they worry about what this means for their children. Some people cope by concentrating on where they can make the most difference. Jordan, from Massachusetts, told me that she is committed to focusing less on the White House and more on her own house.
Our citizens are begging for a change in the dynamic, and many are changing their own expectations as a result. They argue that if you aren’t getting what you need from your government, perhaps your expectations are unrealistic. While the extremes get the airtime, two-thirds of the voters I speak with report that they are becoming more moderate and walking away from the unbending opinions they once held. Democrats tell me that they once saw Trump’s wall as a waste of money, but they are now open to the notion that it is at least a deterrent to illegal immigration. Republicans tell me that they once saw gun control measures as completely nonsensical because the crazies can get guns no matter what — but that they are now open to the idea that restrictions may reduce gun violence. Voters are embracing Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Jeff Flake of Arizona and Representative Cheri Bustos of Illinois, whom they see as courageous enough to vote across party lines, and to listen hard to all of their constituents.
If America is to retain its stature as a world leader and its image as a land of opportunity for its citizens, it must regain that vitality and unity of purpose. Just as with any organization, culture change won’t come from the extremes, from partisan wrangling, or from more screaming back and forth. It will come from changes in the attitudes, practices, and values of the top team, starting with those in the Oval Office, the Cabinet, and Congress. It will come from the same sorts of actions any organization would take in the face of burnout: more dialogue, more listening, more compromise, and leaders who are committed to a new way of renewing our collective energy.
Clarification: The voters in this column were given pseudonyms to protect their identity.
Diane Hessan is an entrepreneur, author, and chair of C Space.
She has been in conversation with 450 voters across the political spectrum weekly since December 2016. Follow her on Twitter @DianeHessan.