In New Hampshire, “First in the Nation” ≠ First in Civic Engagement

Mainstream media coverage of the consequential New Hampshire primary often focuses on dutiful voters who head to the polls with enthusiasm and carefully researched takes. It’s New Hampshire, after all, the first state to vote in the primaries. People take the responsibility seriously, and they’re excited about doing it. While that may be true for some, like in any state, there remains a sense of apathy and disenchantment in a subsection of voters. The forces that contribute to that apathy in New Hampshire are similar to those in other states, but there’s also some unique issues that apply especially to the Granite State.

Political apathy has taken on a different meaning in the Trump era. Before, expressing a political opinion was considered a social faux pas out of necessity. “If someone gets involved and voices their political opinions to family and friends, there tends to be some sort of conflict,” said Greg McKenzie, a teacher from Londonderry. “People don’t want to risk losing those relationships.” 

Now, however, disengagement is seen as a tool of the privileged to avoid important issues, something marginalized groups can’t easily do. For those groups, politics can’t be avoided because they face the repercussions of them in their everyday lives. “It’s a luxury for people to say politics don’t matter,” said Renny Cushing, a state representative from Hampton. “Because it does matter for the people who go bankrupt, the people who don’t have healthcare, the people who are living on the streets.”

Progressive Democrats Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have sought to target their campaigns to the pleas of such disenchanted people. But even though these issues are at the center of their campaigns, some voters feel that they still aren’t adequate.

“I’m having the hassle of figuring out whether I’m going to buy groceries or put gas in my car to work,” said one voter at a Bernie Sanders rally at Dartmouth College, tears coming to her eyes as she recalled how health problems had wreaked financial havoc on her family. “No politician has addressed this because they don’t know what it’s like.” She said her daughter, who’s 18, has asked if it’s really necessary for her to vote because of this lack of feeling seen. Neither woman wanted her name used out of personal choice.

Working class voters in New Hampshire have also attested to the inaccessibility of politics for different reasons. One can’t quite make the claim that the New Hampshire primary is as exclusive to working people as caucuses are, since voting is held throughout the day. But for some, the exclusivity comes from the fact that their daily working lives are too consuming to pay attention prior to election day.

Craig Farnsworth, a 43-year-old vendor with the New England grocery chain Market Basket, expressed such frustration at a Friday night debate watch party organized by the Pete Buttigieg campaign. He admitted that he wouldn’t be there if his friend, Jimmy Kyriakoutsakos, hadn’t brought him along. Kyriakoutsakos is one of the few people with whom Farnsworth discusses politics. It’s not that he’s not interested; he’s simply too busy.  “I work at two jobs, seven days a week,” he said. “You tell me when you can do that, drive 600 miles a week, work to pay off your student loans, and still have time to follow politics.” 

Mark Nozell, of Merrimack, said he feels that this is a systemic problem propagated by the wealthiest in society: “It’s in their best interest for people to be working so much that they can’t stay informed.” 

Despite these systemic efforts, some voters insist that there’s something to be done on an individual basis. Ron Shaw, a Manchester software worker who’s also running for state representative, echoed Cushing’s critique of the disengaged and said that being busy isn’t an excuse for lack of awareness. “You have to schedule it in your life,” he said. “Being informed doesn’t mean you have to have the news on twenty four hours a day.” 

But for some people, therein lies another issue: media coverage and what is seen as a lack of it. Tom McKenzie (brother of Greg), said that paying attention to politics is a matter of sorting out bias, which can turn off voters. “The media shoves it down people’s throats and they don’t want to pay attention. Everyone is either too far to the left or right, and people are turned off by that.” McKenzie, a Republican who is self-employed, said he watches BBC News, which he feels is the least biased, but he still recognizes a certain slant at times. 

Nozell said that even in New Hampshire, where candidates will often hold rallies and events within close proximity of working voters, this system prevents people from staying informed. He also argued that politics simply isn’t engaging enough to be invested. One voter at an Elizabeth Warren-organized debate watch party lamented the fact that his nephew pulled out of canvassing with him because “he got Celtics tickets and blew me off.” 

Thirteen-year-old Niels Restrepo, from North Andover, Mass., said younger people would pay attention to politics if it was made more “relatable” and accessible to them; for Restrepo, that access comes through humor. It’s why he’s drawn to Andrew Yang, whose rally he was attending that day with his parents. The Restrepos drove up because their son was interested in Yang, and it got them to think about Yang too. 

 Perhaps it’s not only young people who could benefit from a guiding figure in their lives to increase their political interest. Many of the people to whom we spoke for this feature came with friends or family, and the story of Farnsworth (who came only at the behest of a friend) was not an uncommon one. But even if you don’t have an acquaintance to get your attention, according to Robert Varnum, there’s plenty you can do on your own if you push past the negative feelings. 

“People that aren’t interested just have to get interested themselves,” said Varnum, an electrician from Watertown, Mass., who attended an Elizabeth Warren event on his own. “You may think the government doesn’t work for you, but it definitely won’t if you don’t get out there and get loud.”


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