Political Hobbyism Is Not Politics

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Citizens are experiencing politics through cable TV and social media rather than participating directly. Photo credit: PBS NewsHour / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Reading Time: 15 minutes

Has politics become a form of entertainment? With debates every week, opinion polls every day, the insatiable appetite of 24/7 cable news for fresh “content,” heated arguments online around the clock, and the clickbait casting of heroes and villains, politics may indeed be America’s new national pastime. 

We know the names of all the players. We know the odds, the delegate counts, and the morning line.

That’s what this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast guest, professor Eitan Hersh, calls “political hobbyism” — another shallow, home-based, and technology-driven activity that takes us out of our community and away from personal engagement. In his view, it runs counter to the very idea of what politics should be.

Hersh, a professor at Tufts and a former professor at Yale, attributes the current situation to many factors, including the disappearance of local news media and the fact that most people, while they like to complain a lot, are just too comfortable to get out and do the hard work of local politics.

According to Hersh, cable and national news outlets give us our politics “fix,” so we are left with little appetite for state and local political engagement. Even the few remaining local news outlets that try to serve the public good are not always doing what the public needs. 

He reminds us that we tend to vote the most in elections in which our influence counts the least, and explains that we learn all the wrong lessons from watching the national political discourse. The result: most people are turned off to the kinds of political activities that might actually make a difference.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the ever-hyped horse race, if you realize that what you’re doing is not politics — i.e., not developing concrete goals and strategies to actually move government — then this is a must-listen.

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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m your host Jeff Schechtman.

Partly as a result of 24/7 cable news and its insatiable appetite for unending political coverage, politics today is simply another form of entertainment. A spectator sport at best. We know the names of all the players. We know the odds, the delegate counts. Nate Silver homogenizes sports and elections statistics as if we all had political bookies. We’re angry and we want purity tests for our candidates and our team. What we’ve lost sight of in all of this is what politics is actually for. It was never meant to be a hobby. At its core, it should really only be about the wielding of power to accomplish something. Success comes not from shouting or self-righteousness or the sanctity of one’s views, but from the ability to muster the requisite number of votes to get something done, even if a compromise is required.

Jeff Schechtman: This is true whether it’s about pre-existing conditions, or guns or filling potholes or paving roads in your community. We’re going to talk about that today with my guest Eitan Hersh. He’s a professor of political science at Tufts University where he uses big data to study important questions about American politics. He researches and teaches about civic participation, U.S. elections and voting rights. He received his PhD from Harvard and served for six years on the faculty of Yale as assistant professor of political science, and the author most recently of Politics is for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism. And it is my pleasure to welcome Eitan Hersh to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Eitan, thanks so much for joining us.
Eitan Hersh: Thanks for having me.
Jeff Schechtman: This phrase that you’ve come up with, political hobbyism, really goes to the heart of really what you talk about in terms of the way we look at politics today. Something we kind of do on the side. It’s either our first or second hobby for so many people.
Eitan Hersh: Yeah, and that’s right. It’s for us. It’s for learning interesting facts, our own intellectual thirst for knowledge. Or it’s about feelings, about feeling connected to something important. It just has a lot more in common with sports fandom or how foodies might take a hobby of being a foodie, than it has with influencing the government, which is what politics is all about.
Jeff Schechtman: In your view, how did we get to this point? How did we get to the point where politics was not something to be involved in and to actively engage in, in your local community, to something that was a kind of entertainment, a kind of spectator sport?
Eitan Hersh: Yeah. So it was three big trends historically that have created this. One is just technology. All of our hobbies, not just our political hobby, have become shallow at home activities that we do in five-minute stints throughout the day rather than in person. So this is like kind of a continuation of the bowling alone themes that we learned about 20 years ago from Bob Putnam. Active in-person civic participation has declined, but not just civic, clubs, sports, all that. And it’s been replaced as we’ve seen with the rise of social media with this kind of shallow online hobbyism. Other things have changed too. A big change has been that local party, political party organizations have been stripped of their powers. So a lot of progressive reforms have taken power away from local Democratic and Republican party committees. They don’t have any money anymore. They don’t have much of a mission.
Eitan Hersh: For example, before the 1970s they had a very important role to play in the presidential primary system and now they don’t. That’s been replaced by primaries. So we’ve kind of taken power away from local institutions that could be the source of engagement. But the main thing I think, the biggest driver of this is that particularly for the class of well-educated white Americans, the status quo has been increasingly good and they’ve felt less need to engage in real community activity, whether that’s attending churches or participating in politics. They might lament the status quo. They might say they hate polarization or they don’t like Trump, or they don’t like Obama, but they are not getting off their couches to do anything about it. I think that has a lot to do with the fact that they’re quite comfortable there on the couch.
Jeff Schechtman: How much of it has to do with the media and coverage, and that the coverage is so broadly focused on national politics and national approach to everything, and simultaneously we’ve seen local coverage, local media virtually disappear?
Eitan Hersh: That’s right. It’s not exactly the media’s fault. It’s our fault for incentivizing the media about what we care about. What we have shown over time as there’s been this explosion of different types of media, of websites, of podcasts, of cable news, we’ve shown, we the American public, has shown that what we thirst for is national focused drama and outrage. We have very little appetite for the details of policymaking or political engagement at the state or local level. So it’s not like the news came first and it’s made us all into national drama obsessed people. We were there all along and we’ve shown through our media choices what we care about.
Jeff Schechtman: In fact, what we’re doing with this hobby-ism as you call it, it’s really not politics. It’s not really what politics is about.
Eitan Hersh: That’s right. When think about politics, like the definition of political participation, I would say it’s people working together with concrete goals and strategies to influence the government. They might do that by getting their neighbors to vote a certain way, or by getting politicians to act a certain way and legislators or things like that. But that kind of influence, moving people to get your values imposed in government just does not correspond with how the vast majority of politically engaged, so-called politically engaged Americans participate today.
Jeff Schechtman: And as you say, people vote the most, usually, when it matters the least.
Eitan Hersh: Yeah, you look at California, like any other state, but California won’t be a competitive election in the 2020 election, but that’s where you’ll have the highest turnout. Meanwhile, for state and local things that can really impact issues people care about, whether it’s issues related to racial equality, the environment, economic development, then people stay at home. So one of the weird things about political hobbyism is that when you’re engaged in this national focused news consumption, you’re learning the wrong information that could help you become a better informed voter.
Eitan Hersh: You’re not learning anything that’s going to actually influence how you would vote or how you could convey to others who to vote for. It’s really just focused on the Mueller report, Sharpiegate, the impeachment trial, things that you, a voter, have no role to play in.
Jeff Schechtman: In many ways it is a kind of laziness I suppose, because it’s real easy to turn on cable news or go on social media; not so easy to go out and attend a local meeting, a local city council meeting, or an organizing meeting about something.
Eitan Hersh: Yeah, I think as it’s gotten so easy to feel connected even in a shallow way, to what’s going on from home, it feels comparatively harder to engage in your community. And something else is happening, which is that the politics we see online and on cable news is awful. It’s vicious, it’s mean, and if you think that that’s what politics is going to be locally through actual engagement, then you would say, “Well, why would I want to do that? That seems terrible.” But in truth, and I hope we can talk about this, real active engagement is nothing like the outrage online. It values a different set of skills, like being empathetic, being a good listener, taking a slow and steady approach to get people on board with you. So when we pay attention to the national stuff, we’re learning the wrong skills.
Jeff Schechtman: The other thing that happens with local engagement is that the only people that engage are those that have some kind of problem, some issue that directly impacts them. Anything beyond that is just not something of interest.
Eitan Hersh: That tends to be right. You’ll show up, it’s a classic NIMBY story. You’ll show up if there’s a development right next to you and you don’t want it. But no one is showing up to a zoning board meeting, for example, to advocate for better density. Not nobody, some people are, but few people are. You tend to only get engaged at the local level when you feel the stakes are high. Of course the exceptions to that, the groups that are working really hard right now to move politics for themselves, I mean in a direction that they want, are people who feel connected to some big issues and they want to have a concrete role in solving those issues.
Jeff Schechtman: It seems that the elephant in the room here when we talk about all of this, is the power and impact of money in the political process, be it nationally or locally, that money has become such a large influencer that it does make the individuals seem more powerless on every level.
Eitan Hersh: Yeah, I think I would reject that a little bit. For one thing, you have money being spent in different ways by different parties. On the left you have people like Mike Bloomberg and Tom Steyer throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at vanity projects. Meanwhile on the right you’ve had the Koch brothers for quite a long time invest in very slow and steady party building grassroots, having a long view. The idea that you could work on a county judge race and invest in a county judge race for a 25- year-old kid fresh out of law school with the idea that maybe in 30 years that person can be on the Supreme Court. Whether it’s money or just people on our couch, a lot of people would look at a county judge race and say: “That’s beneath me. That’s parochial. I don’t care about that.”
Eitan Hersh: So it’s not just about money. It’s about vision and a path to power, a path to change. If you’re focused on instant gratification, whether you’re Tom Steyer or whether you’re someone without any money on the couch, it’s going to result in a lack of power for the things you care about.
Jeff Schechtman: It does seem, to put this in some partisan perspective, it does seem that Republicans have understood this in a more powerful way with things like ALEC and their effectiveness in state races, for example.
Eitan Hersh: That’s right, and I think Republicans are, as there’s been this very increasingly strong relationship between church attendance and Republican affiliation, you see that it’s Republicans much more than Democrats who are in the practice of regular community participation. You see groups like gun clubs that have a very clear service mission of safety classes and things like that tied to a political agenda, but at a grassroots level. The churches that are involved in the right to life movement, you see again, grassroots local organizing with a long-term path to power.
Eitan Hersh: So I think a lot of our best examples of what I think are the successful models of long-term change are on the right, and on the left you have this cosmopolitan view that I care about the big important stuff and anything in my own community is kind of boring and unimportant.
Jeff Schechtman: What are you seeing in terms of the nexus between these national attitudes and local politics? The way in which the anger, the partisanship, the division that we see nationally playing out in this entertainment sports complex, the way in which that’s trickling down to poison really local politics?
Eitan Hersh: Yeah. I have been personally at some local community meetings where I’ve seen someone maybe who is not as practiced at being in those meetings, take this performative outrage approach and it doesn’t go over well. You can really spoil a meeting by deciding it’s a performance art for you to vent your anger. Really when you’re engaged in any kind of local politics, you have to get people on board with you and the issues are not so black and white. If the issue is about, say the environment, the people that you’re going to have to convince to move one way or the other are people who are in your neighborhood who have different priorities and you can’t yell at them if you want them to do what you want. So I think if you try to approach a real political activity with that kind of outrage, you’re not going to get very far. But it certainly can make in the short term, these kinds of meetings awkward.
Jeff Schechtman: How much of that comes from the fact that compromise has become a dirty word in the larger national political discourse?
Eitan Hersh: Yeah, I think that’s a big part of it. When your opponent is some kind of distant villain who you don’t have to interact with, it’s very easy to take a non-compromised approach. And if you are looking at politics like a show, you don’t want your senators to compromise, you want them to dig in their heels and fight, fight, fight. But if you actually want to make progress on something, and we know this, anyone who’s been in a meeting at work, at a school, any kind of meeting knows that you have to be compromising and thoughtful and empathetic about where other people are coming from. So the outrage online is not just a distraction, it’s not just like a waste of time for people who have real goals in politics. It’s really like the opposite of what it takes to build political power.
Eitan Hersh: But it’s not just that people are lazy. A lot of people don’t really have a sense of what it’s like to be engaged in communities or they feel scared about it. I think a lot of young people have never seen anything like real community engagement. So that’s why in this book I wrote, I spent a lot of it highlighting stories of local organizers who really show us that the thing they are doing, political power building, is first of all beautiful and interesting and engaging, and also not so different from, I think, what the values of the people who are right now in the hobbyist mode feel.
Jeff Schechtman: I guess part of the question is, and maybe this feeds into all the wrong impulses, but how do you make local politics, local community organizing, local engagement, how do you make that sexier in the entertainment celebrity culture we live in?
Eitan Hersh: Look at some of the stories in the book. Just to highlight one, one of my favorites, this guy, this 98 year old man who is called the Ukrainian boss, he’s been under investigation by the US attorneys and it turns out his story is amazing. He, in retirement was just kind of a do-gooder in his community, he helped drive people in his community of mostly Russian refugees from the former USSR, he drove them to doctor’s appointments and taught them English, and it was just a nice person in this community.
Eitan Hersh: Then he decided to leverage that into political organizing. So he and a bunch of his lieutenants, he called them, they would go around and say, “Here’s who the community should vote for,” they would pass out these slates. They would get out the vote, and this person increased his own power from one vote that he was entitled to, of course, to 1,000 votes. 1,000 people voted his way. I have to say, this person’s story is in the book, but he died a few weeks ago and I went to his funeral, 99 years old and they’re sitting in this chapel for the funeral where, the governor of Massachusetts, the mayor of Boston, state legislators, city councilors, all paying tribute to this person who, not even until he was in retirement that he started doing this.
Eitan Hersh: And what did he do? He got a few hundred of his neighbors to act together as a political force. That’s something that is fascinating, it’s inspiring and it’s within the grasp of so many people who are now spending an hour or two a day worrying and whining.
Jeff Schechtman: How much of it has to do with the fact that it’s become unpleasant or people perceive it as unpleasant, I suppose, to run for local political office?
Eitan Hersh: Yeah, I mean I think there is … What can I say? Participation in local communities, serving on committees. Is it hard? I know I do it all the time. I’m out one or two nights a week, so is my wife, engaging in the community, going to meetings and it’s both inspiring and gratifying. But yeah, it’s hard. But that’s life. If you care about something, if you care about supporting your community, if you feel like a steward of your community, you have some responsibility for what happens, then what choice do you have?
Jeff Schechtman: Is one of the factors that enters into this, and it’s certainly something you see here in the Bay area in California and I suppose other places, because of the increasing cost of housing, people moving further and further away from where they work, that they are more disconnected from their community because it really becomes just a place where they sleep?
Eitan Hersh: Yeah, I think you see that and you see that in different ways, in different demographics. When I look at my students now, my college students, I know that in the next 10 years they’re going to move about six times. They’re probably not going to live near where they grew up. They’re not going to get married until they’re close to 30 and they’re not going to have kids until that around then, and so they’re not going to feel settled for a decade.
Eitan Hersh: Now, did that mean that they shouldn’t be involved in any community affairs until then? No, because if you participate where you can, where you live, you build skills and relationships that you will continue to carry with you after you leave that place, but that are also useful in the moment. So if you don’t feel connected to where you live but you feel connected to where you work, you can engage there. But where you live, there are a lot of opportunities to engage on issues that you care about and be part of something that multiplies the power of your own voter voice.
Jeff Schechtman: Do you find that there’s a difference between urban and rural and suburban places, in terms of community engagement?
Eitan Hersh: Well, there’s definitely more transients and less church attendance and things like that in more urban areas. So you definitely see, in places that are more rural, people tend to know their neighbors, be longer term residents. So you definitely see a bit of variation there. Yeah.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about young people, and what you’re seeing, your students, and what you hear from young people about this phenomenon that we’ve been talking about.
Eitan Hersh: Yeah. So the young people that I see, my students for example, the idea of political hobbyism and the shallowness of it does resonate with them. But I think to a large extent because they feel disconnected, because I see mostly young liberal students, they’re disconnected from any religious institutions, again, they’re going to be transient for a number of years. And so they don’t really feel like, in spite of any civics training we might’ve given them, any kind of government courses they took in high school or college, they don’t have the language and skillset to necessarily engage this way, it’s scary. And it also can feel parochial.
Eitan Hersh: Like, “Why would I engage locally, it’s not as important as what’s going on in Washington.” So I think this resonates with them because the stories in the book range in age all the way from that oldest man, the Ukrainian boss who was 98, to a couple of college students who really figured this out too. And even in their short term life as college students in one particular place, they figured out how to get engaged too. So I think my students, it resonates with them. They don’t see the alternative to hobbyism, and that’s what I’m trying to show them here.
Jeff Schechtman: If they don’t come to understand it the way generations years ago did, they don’t quite get that local involvement, what do you see then for the future of politics as we know it?
Eitan Hersh: Well, I think we’re going down a really bad path right now. When I say, I titled the book Politics is for Power, and that power idea makes some people uncomfortable, and I want them to be uncomfortable because if they’re not willing to work for our democracy, of course other people work hard for it instead. And I give examples in the book. For example, one example I give is about the Ku Klux Klan, who in 2018 went around North Carolina saying to opioid addicts, “Hey, if you have an opiod addiction, it’s not your fault. We here at the KKK, come talk to us.” If that makes you uncomfortable because the KKK is going to win support not by their noxious ideology, but by being empathetic to people with addiction, if that makes you uncomfortable, and nevertheless you don’t want to engage in a form of politics that empathizes with your neighbors and builds power for what you care about, then Hey, just know who’s going to build it instead.
Eitan Hersh: So I think about not just young people, but I think about recent retirees, this huge population of boomers that’s approaching retirement or is nearly retired. People have time on their hands, young people too. If they don’t like the direction that politics is taking, then it’s on them. It’s on all of us.
Jeff Schechtman: Eitan Hersh, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Eitan Hersh: Thanks for having me.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. And thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.

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