Jen Lancaster’s new memoir is about anxiety, but the top review on Amazon has nothing to do with the book.

Instead, a reviewer from Seattle, Washington, gives Lancaster’s “Welcome to the United States of Anxiety” one star — the lowest ranking — because of what she perceives to be the author’s political views. Although the reviewer admits she hasn’t read the book, more than 1,422 Amazon browsers said they found the review “helpful.”

Call it the United States of Animosity, where less than three weeks before a contentious election, politics are creeping into every aspect of life, even those that have nothing to do with politics. The acrimony has seeped into decorations that children will walk past on Halloween, influences decisions about what people read and where they shop, and has even turned up in an online forum devoted to knitting.

“It feels like our choices of entertainment, our choices of where we shop, where we eat, what we read, has become deeply infused with political beliefs,” said John Sarrouf, co-executive director of the community building nonprofit Essential Partners, based in Boston. “I’ve heard people say, ‘I don’t want to walk down that street because there’s a big Trump sign.’ They don’t even want to look at it.”

For Lancaster, a bestselling author of 15 other books, it was jarring to see a spiteful review that she says does not even reflect her current personal views. The reviewer said that Lancaster liked conservative author Ann Coulter, based on something Lancaster published in 2006. “But in 2006, I also liked chunky highlights and platform sandals,” she said, adding that her political views have similarly evolved since then.

Although the all-encompassing nature of politics feels new, historians say it’s actually a return to an earlier time when political campaigns were the nation’s major form of entertainment. And some social scientists say an obsession with politics is better than its antithesis, apathy.

But others are hoping the emphasis on political divisions will end after the votes are counted next month.

“It ought to be possible to say, for example, I enjoyed playing golf today, without Democrats and Republicans immediately thinking, ‘That awful president plays golf, too’,” Charles Lipson, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Chicago wrote for Real Clear Politics.

Jen Lancaster, author of “Welcome to the United States of Anxiety” and 15 other books, poses for a photo in New York City. | Jolene Siana

Deplorable knitters

Lancaster, 52, best known for her humorous titles such as “Bitter is the Next Black” and “Such a Pretty Fat,” said that until recently, she has held fairly conservative political views throughout her career, and openly so, until around 2007.

“Politics are really important to me; I was a political science major at Purdue,” she said, adding that she spoke in support of the late GOP Sen. John McCain when he ran for president in 2008 at a time when other authors came out against him.

“But then my entire management team said, ‘You’re not going to have a career if you continue to say anything about being conservative. So I’ve kept my mouth shut.”

In her new book, she says she no longer identifies with a political party. “If I identify with anything, it’s being an American, which is why I despise how badly we’ve splintered as a country. The divisions between us aren’t new, but the ways we deal with them are. We’ve lost the social norm of civility,” Lancaster wrote.

Adrienne Martini, a member of the Otsego County Board of Representatives in Oneonta, New York, wrote a book about her experience running for office, “Somebody’s Gotta Do It.” But before she was a politician, she was a knitter, and like others, turned the hobby political by knitting pink hats that women wore in a march on Washington in 2017.

“They are very easy to knit and made me feel like I was ‘doing something’ after the 2016 election. The big political thing to knit right now is the ‘dissent’ collar (a nod to the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wore lace collars) but it doesn’t move me in quite the same way,” Martini said.

Knitters have also made things in support of President Donald Trump, such as a pattern for a hat that said “Build the Wall,” designed by an anonymous woman who calls herself the “Deplorable Knitter.” On her website, she said she and her husband support “our President, our Troops, and our God. If any of those things offend you, this is probably not the place for you.”

Her support of the president was deemed offensive by the online knitting community Ravelry, which banned her from the platform, as well as anyone promoting Trump and his policies. The resulting furor caused MIT Technology Review to write about “increased politicization of the online knitting world.”

But Martini said she isn’t surprised or even particularly troubled by the division among knitters.

“My feeling is that politics is the water that we all swim in every moment of every day. We’re just more aware of how wet that water is right now and how many of us are drowning rather than swimming. Knitting is just one more way that people make their preferences known,” she said

‘Everyone is an authority’

Ellen Fitzpatrick, a history professor at the University of New Hampshire who specializes in presidential campaigns, said the current high level of engagement in politics is due in part to the pandemic, but magnified exponentially by widespread use of social media.

“Everyone is an authority these days,” she said. “There’s tremendous explosion of opportunity for people to participate in these ways; whether they’re constructive or not is another question.”

But what seems a new level of engagement is actually a return to an earlier period in history, she said.

In the 19th century, fewer Americans were able to vote; women and many Blacks were not eligible, for example. “But there was a tremendously high level of enthusiasm and engagement on the part of those who could vote. It was a form of entertainment; it was a way of socializing with each other. There would be these huge torchlight parades and outdoor lectures. Politics was entertainment; it was sport. It filled a lot of needs in the culture,” Fitzpatrick said.

During that period, however, people identified more with political parties than with individuals, and in the early 20th century, reforms were instituted (to include secret ballots and the primary process) that made the parties less powerful, and the turnout rate, which once was as high as 80%, began to fall, and interest in elections declined and never recovered to 19th century levels.

“Paradoxically, the number of eligible voters expands over the course of the 20th century, but voter enthusiasm seemed to decline,” Fitzpatrick said. “What’s going on today, there seems to be a high level of engagement, but whether that translates to voting or not remains to be seen.”

There are new developments today, though, she noted, including exuberance for the individual candidates rather than the political parties and their platforms. “

“And politics is infecting everything now. This deep division is a worrisome development because it seems to be so full of anger. The anonymity of some of these platforms allows people to say things they would not say in person to someone else. I think there’s a hate-filled rhetoric and divisiveness that is a very lamentable thing we’re seeing in recent years.”

‘Not just our political identities’

Lipson, at the University of Chicago, said that the political divisions in America are deep and the greatest since the Great Depression and perhaps since 1860. Equally disturbing is that, while in the past, people of differing political parties still found areas on which they can agree, now they rarely do.

“The parties are more ideological than they have been since the 1930s,” he said. “Instead of having cross-cutting cleavages socially, we have reinforcing cleavages. We’re slicing the pie down the same middle slice all the time. And we’re doing so without strong trust in social and governmental institutions,” Lipson said.

“If you asked in the early 1960s, ‘do you think government generally tries to do the right thing?’, 70% would say yes; now the number is like 20%,’ he said. “We have deep social cleavages, parties that are trying to pull us apart, activists within those parties, all dealing with each other in a very low-trust environment. This is a recipe for real trouble.”

Lancaster, the Chicago author, said the problem is that people are telling other people what they should think and why they should think it. “If you want to make a persuasive argument, the best thing you can do is talk about your personal experience with whatever the subject is,” she said.

But, she said, “This is such an ugly political season that I don’t think not talking about politics is the right call either. I think what we need to do is try to foster some mutual understanding or we’re going to have a civil war.”

Sarrouf, co-author of Essential Partners’ “Guide to Conversations Across the Red-Blue Divide,” echoed Lancaster’s remarks, saying that people can learn a “constructive cycle of conversation” that they can employ anytime they’re in conversation that is becoming acrimonious.

Research has shown that people’s minds are rarely changed by yard signs, but they can be changed in a thoughtful conversation in which both sides listen deeply to the other and ask sincere questions. “Be that positive deviation from the escalating norm,” Sarrouf said.

Also, he advises people to quickly remove the physical manifestations of division immediately after the election. “If it’s important to put up a sign in your yard, it’s important to take it down when it’s over,” Sarrouf said.

“I think it’s important to remember that we are not just one thing. The person down the street is not just a Democrat who voted for Biden; they’re the person who brought a bouquet of flowers when my mom passed away,” he said. “Or, the person for Trump is also the person who picks up trash at the kids’ playground so it can be a clean place for the children to play. We are not just our political identities.”