Is your commute to work sapping your will to be a good citizen?

A new paper in American Politics Research (gated; ungated) by three researchers at the University of Connecticut suggests this could be the case.

They find that those with long commutes to work are less likely to participate in politics. Voting, contacting a government official or elected representative, campaigning, signing a petition, giving money to a political organization or volunteering for an organization or campaign — the longer your commute to work, the less likely you are to be an engaged citizen.

This isn’t only a matter of not having time, since hours spent at work doesn’t change participation.  And it’s not only a matter of living in a politically-apathetic ‘bedroom community’ or commuter-filled suburb, since commuting time still matters even when controlling for various community characteristics.

So why does commuting make us less politically active?  Drawing on ego-depletion research from psychology, the authors frame commuting as a “daily grind” of stressors that reduce the resources and energy needed to actively engage in politics.  Consistent with a resources perspective, the authors find that having income helps buffer the adverse effect of a long commute.

The paper does an admirable job, given a limited dataset, of trying to rule out the explanation that the apathetic opt for long commutes, rather than long commutes making us apathetic.  The jury is probably still out on causality here, but this paper flags an interesting and troubling dynamic:

“The findings from this article suggest that lower income commuters, while perhaps in high need of upping their level of interest advocacy… will be less likely to do so because their current situation has left them depleted of key resources needed for such action.”

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