In a world awash in national dramas and hot takes, US political scientist Eitan Hersh questions why we consume news. Does it keep us politically informed, or does it, in fact, prevent us from becoming more actively engaged? Hersh presents a theory of political hobbyism: A growing number of people, he argues, are treating politics as a pastime rather than a means of acquiring and exercising power. Through striking statistics and inspiring stories, Hersh explores the development of this passive approach to politics, what it means for democracy and whether it can – or should – be overcome.
- Many Americans have made a hobby out of following politics.
- People who treat politics as a pastime focus on satisfying private needs rather than gaining public power.
- Political hobbyism has become popular among the privileged elite, who remain insulated from working-class anxieties.
- Treating politics as a hobby harms democracy.
- Vote and engage your community to convert hobbyism into active political participation.
In a world awash in national dramas and hot takes, American political scientist Eitan Hersh questions why we consume news. Does it keep us politically informed, or does it, in fact, prevent us from becoming more actively engaged? Hersh presents a theory of political hobbyism: A growing number of people, he argues, are treating politics as a pastime rather than a means of acquiring and exercising power. Through striking statistics and inspiring stories, Hersh explores the development of this passive approach to politics, what it means for democracy and whether it can – or should – be overcome.
Many Americans have made a hobby out of following politics.
Hobbies – socially approved activities people do in their free time because they enjoy them – generally fall into four categories: the collecting of objects, the acquisition of knowledge, crafts and group activities. When people treat politics as a hobby, their activities center on acquiring knowledge in the form of political news and making crafts in the form of political content, such as tweets, memes or podcasts.
“Much of the time we spend on politics is best described as an inward-focused leisure activity for people who like politics.”
Most political hobbyists don’t acquire knowledge in order to take informed actions. In fact, a 2018 survey found that a third of Americans spent more than two hours on politics each day, yet only one out of five did any actual political work. The rest stuck to watching news and following social media.
Neither do hobbyists follow news solely to stay informed of relevant issues. For example, in 2018, a flood of coverage informed people that EPA administrator Scott Pruitt had sent guards to Ritz-Carlton hotels to obtain a certain hand lotion he liked – a minor scandal dubbed Moisturegate. Hobbyists spent hours crafting memes, tweets, comments, articles and even a song. For them, the point wasn’t to stay informed or take action but rather to participate in an enjoyable cultural moment. In other words, to practice a hobby.
People who treat politics as a pastime focus on satisfying private needs rather than gaining public power.
The point of a hobby is to enhance enjoyment of leisure time. The point of politics is to gain power. When you look at the most popular political activities – consuming news, cheering for a political party, voting, engaging in activism and donating – it’s clear the end goal of all isn’t power but enjoyment.
- Consuming news – News junkies spend hours consuming news each day. What kind of news? Mostly national news focusing on political dramas and outrage. Unfortunately, news junkies’ love of drama and outrage encourages fake news. In 2016, one in four Americans visited websites that specialize in fake news. Not only that, but those who followed news the most read the most fake news. This happened not because they lack intelligence but because they have an addiction to news and outrage.
- Partisan fandom – Like sports fans cheering for their favorite team, political hobbyists cheer for their favorite party. They also boo at the other party and exaggerate the differences between the two. This partisan fandom leads to a general lack of empathy for people on the other “team.” According to the Pew Research Center, many people feel reluctant to socialize with or marry a person of another party. They also tend to view people of other parties as unintelligent.
- Voting – The outcomes of local elections affect school budgets, road maintenance and other important aspects of people’s daily lives. Despite that, people tend to skip these elections. Although 50% of Americans say they enjoy casting their vote in local elections, these elections often see turnout below 20%. When people do turn out to vote, it tends to be for national elections that are exciting to follow. The outcomes affect their daily lives much less, but the spectacle provides far more entertainment.
“Some political actions are like passive hobbies: shallow, technology-mediated activities that satisfy the short-term emotional needs or intellectual interests of participants but do nothing for anyone else.”
- Activism – Online petition signing represents one of the most popular forms of activism. A 2018 study of 13 million signatures across 1,800 petitions on the White House platform We the People found only 5% focused on big issues such as health care, taxes and education. The vast majority presented a mix of narrow concerns, such as the FDA’s failure to regulate premium cigars – and a full 15% were outright jokes, such as a proposal to build a Death Star, as in Star Wars.
- Donations – A 2016 study of 676 high-dollar donors found most of their donations were tied to campaign events such as cocktail parties, sports games or Broadway shows. Alongside funding a political party they believe in, many wealthy donors – especially the hobbyists – also want to be entertained. A few thousand dollars for a night of gossip and selfies does that. Although this kind of fundraising might seem harmless, these events can cost up to a third of the donated amounts and can steal attention from other, more praiseworthy causes, whose supporters can’t afford to pay for Broadway shows and cocktail parties.
Political hobbyism has become popular among the privileged elite, who remain insulated from working-class anxieties.
Politics as a hobby is rising in popularity as a result of technological and institutional changes and the privilege that some people enjoy. First, changes in technology and leisure time make it easier to engage in political hobbyism. Smartphones make it possible for people to practice their hobby in five-minute bursts throughout the day. Whether that means commenting on a post during a bathroom break or reading an article while shopping for groceries, these small moments of leisure fit well into a busy life. Although five minutes here and there don’t seem like a lot, all those short bursts can add up to hours every day.
Changes in political institutions have led to the hollowing-out of local party offices. This makes it harder for the average person to participate actively in politics and easier to fall back on political hobbyism. The 19th century saw high participation in local political parties. The parties provided services, entertainment and jobs in exchange for party loyalty. Unfortunately, the parties also earned notoriety for racism, corruption and secrecy. As a result, in the 20th century, their power declined, and as that happened, political hobbyism grew. Nowadays, rather than volunteering with others or organizing their neighbors, people who have a sense of civic duty turn to obsessive news consumption and online petition signing instead.
“Only if you don’t need more power than you already have could politics be for fun. It’s when you don’t have as much as you need – that’s when politics is for power.”
The average political hobbyist is a college-educated white male who lives in a privileged culture. That culture, largely insulated from daily fears of poverty, social unrest and safety concerns, fosters a low-stakes environment where people can treat politics as a passive hobby rather than an active struggle. According to a 2018 survey, white people consume more political news than do nonwhites, yet Blacks and Latinos volunteer at twice the rate of their white counterparts, and minorities who lack a college education are three times more likely to volunteer.
The disinterest in volunteering among white men stems in part from a lack of “linked fate.” In short, wealthy and successful white men don’t link their fate with that of their racial group. In contrast, many wealthy and successful Black voters do link their fate with that of their racial group. Hence, they consume less political drama and do more community volunteering.
Treating politics as a hobby harms democracy.
Political hobbyism causes harm to democracy because it rewards politicians for being outrageous, discourages voter empathy and distracts people from engaging in politics more productively.
Politicians are beholden to their base – the set of donors, activists and primary voters who follow them most closely. If a significant portion of that base consists of political hobbyists who demand drama, then politicians will cater to them by creating viral moments that gain news coverage and boost campaign donations. In 2016, Donald Trump used this strategy to bring in $239 million in small-dollar donations – more than Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton combined.
Alongside their demand for drama, political hobbyists tend to tie news items to moral values and also tend to resist compromise. These attitudes push politicians to be uncompromising as well, resulting in a highly polarized Congress. Unfortunately, data show highly polarized Congresses pass fewer than half the number of bills that Congresses with low polarization pass.
“Hobbyism is a serious threat to democracy because it is taking well-meaning citizens away from pursuing power. The power vacuum will be filled.”
When people treat politics as a hobby, they become more likely to act without empathy, as their pastime doesn’t require them to meet people face to face. Instead, hobbyists can cloak themselves in anonymity while posting comments from their phones. This makes it easy to think about issues in an abstract and ideological way and dismiss the feelings and concerns of people who hold differing views. Ultimately, this lack of empathy leads to growing hatred and polarization. In contrast, some of the most successful political organizers regularly meet face to face with people who hold opposing views, in order to listen to what they have to say.
When people spend their limited leisure time on politics as a hobby, they have less time available for actual political participation. According to the 2016 American National Election Study, less than 4% of daily news consumers worked for a political campaign or party that year. Even for those who feared a Donald Trump victory, that number rose to only 5%. Most of these daily news consumers didn’t belong to any organizations, and 68% said they hadn’t attended any meetings to work on a community issue in the past year.
Vote and engage your community to convert hobbyism into active political participation.
If you treat politics as a pastime, you have an alternative: to participate in politics as a means of gaining power. This power comes in the form of votes pushing policies that advance your values. Pursuing politics as a means to power entails strategizing with others to reach political goals. This can take the form of voting, joining local political organizations and listening to other voters.
- Vote – Make sure to vote in local as well as national elections. Inform yourself about local issues and local candidates by reading news, attending meetings and talking with neighbors.
“Power is getting 10, 50, 100, 1,000 people to vote and to vote the way you want.”
- Join local organizations – Join an existing party committee or local organization to look for opportunities to bring direct services to your neighborhood. In 2016, campaigns’ and parties’ spending on political ads amounted to roughly $3 billion. They spent almost nothing on providing services directly to communities, such as establishing volunteer clinics to provide tax assistance, auto repairs, addiction services, and more. If average voters notice that the local Democratic Party or Republican Party is providing ongoing help with community needs and concerns, then they’ll be far more likely to support that party. As authors like to say, “Show, don’t tell.”
- Engage in “deep canvassing” – Practice empathy by talking with your neighbors. Build rapport with them, and listen to what they have to say – especially if you disagree. If you typically go door to door during an election season to read off a political party’s preplanned message, consider going door to door outside of election seasons to talk with people in a personal and genuine way.
Activist Dave Fleischer calls this approach deep canvassing, and it’s one of the most effective forms of political persuasion ever devised. Rather than protesting against those you disagree with, deep canvassing entails engaging in empathetic conversations with them. Usually, it involves describing how a political issue affects you and then asking how it affects the person you’re speaking with. This kind of conversation changes a political issue from an abstract, low-stakes debate into a concrete, high-stakes discussion. Although it’s a slow process, deep canvassing proves to have long-term effects. In one study, months after a deep canvassing conversation about transgender rights, people’s views remained more sympathetic to trans rights than before the conversation.
About the Author
Eitan Hersh is a political scientist at Tufts University. His research and teaching focus on voting rights, US elections and civic participation.
In “Politics Is for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change,” Eitan D. Hersh offers a refreshing and thought-provoking perspective on the role of politics in contemporary society. Through a combination of personal anecdotes, historical analysis, and actionable advice, Hersh challenges readers to rethink their assumptions about politics and its potential to drive meaningful change. In this review, we’ll delve into the key themes, strengths, and limitations of Hersh’s book.
- The problem of political hobbyism: Hersh argues that many people, including himself, have become disillusioned with politics due to the perceived lack of consequences for political action. He contends that this hobbyism is a result of the disconnect between the political process and the real-world impact of political decisions.
- The importance of power: Hersh emphasizes the centrality of power in politics, arguing that the ability to wield power is the ultimate goal of political engagement. He suggests that individuals must be willing to take risks and challenge the status quo in order to effect meaningful change.
- The need for collective action: Hersh stresses the importance of collaboration and collective action in achieving political goals. He argues that individuals must work together to create a critical mass of support for their causes in order to overcome the entrenched interests that often dominate the political landscape.
- The role of empathy and identity: Hersh highlights the role of empathy and identity in shaping political beliefs and actions. He suggests that individuals must be willing to listen to and understand the perspectives of those with whom they disagree, and that they must be willing to challenge their own assumptions and biases.
- Accessible writing style: Hersh’s writing style is clear, concise, and engaging, making the book accessible to readers with little or no background in politics.
- Engaging anecdotes: Hersh’s personal anecdotes and examples provide a relatable and humanizing touch to the book, making the concepts he discusses more tangible and relatable.
- Well-researched historical context: Hersh provides a rich historical context for his arguments, drawing on examples from throughout history to illustrate the power of collective action and the dangers of political apathy.
- Actionable advice: Hersh offers practical advice and strategies for individuals looking to become more engaged in politics, making the book a valuable resource for anyone looking to make a difference.
- Overemphasis on individual action: While Hersh emphasizes the importance of collective action, he sometimes glosses over the role of structural and institutional factors in shaping political outcomes.
- Lack of prescriptive solutions: While Hersh offers valuable insights into the challenges facing the political system, he does not provide explicit solutions to these problems.
- Limited focus on marginalized communities: While Hersh acknowledges the importance of empathy and identity in shaping political beliefs and actions, he does not delve deeply into the experiences and perspectives of marginalized communities.
In “Politics Is for Power,” Eitan D. Hersh offers a thought-provoking and timely critique of the political system and a call to action for individuals looking to make a real difference. While the book has some limitations, its strengths make it a valuable resource for anyone looking to engage more meaningfully in politics. By emphasizing the importance of power, collective action, and empathy, Hersh provides a fresh perspective on the role of politics in shaping our society and our lives.