On a Wednesday evening this past June, a volunteer political organization was holding its monthly meeting in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. Lemonade and cookies were set up in the back of a borrowed meeting room, a few blocks from the center of town, and a few young children milled around as fifty adults made their way to large round conference tables. The organization, like similar ones around the country, was formed in the aftermath of the 2016 election to support Democratic candidates and progressive causes. It was now planning its next moves.
A third of Americans say they spend two plus hours a day on politics. Of these people, four out of five say that not one minute is spent on any kind of real political work.
Greensburg, which is an hour southeast of Pittsburgh, is the seat of Westmoreland County. Over the past twenty years, Westmoreland has gone from a politically split county to a Republican stronghold. Two out of every three of the 182,000 votes cast in 2016 went to Donald Trump. The monthly meeting is a temporary liberal oasis here. A few dozen people with left-leaning policy views briefly enjoy a sense of camaraderie that they rarely get to experience outside this room. Everywhere else they go—work, church, school, among their neighbors—their political views are abnormal.
One man, a new face to the group, lingered at the back of the room as the leaders in front made announcements. He seemed apprehensive and serious, maybe sad. About fifty years old with a thick beard, he wore a T-shirt with a slogan that professed his love of drinking, and he chose to sit at the rearmost chair at the rearmost table in the room. When a young organizer asked everyone at the table to introduce themselves, the man said he is a Republican and a Christian, as well as the father of a child serving in the military. He also said he’s pro-life and one of those two out of three voters in the county who supported Trump for president in 2016.
A couple of people shifted in their seats, unsure where this introduction was going, worried that this rare hour in which they were surrounded by fellow liberals was about to be disrupted.
The man continued, almost mournfully, “I’m a Christian, and there’s no such thing as a racist Christian.” That’s why he was there, he explained. He felt that his own small community is going down a path of hatred and, as a Christian, he needed to take a stand. Even though he disagreed with the other people in this room issue by issue, he said, he was there to learn about the group and maybe to contribute to its work. He was there because Donald Trump doesn’t represent his Christian values. He then offered advice about how the group can better approach people who are like him, remaining visibly uncomfortable through the whole meeting even though the group welcomed him.
The man traveled a long political distance to be there that night, but his presence was not an accident; it was a triumph. The group’s leaders have been working for over two years, slowly building support and training volunteers to win over people exactly like him. In a county that could hardly be more hostile to their views, they have had a remarkable string of successes. The successes were hard-earned through many evenings of their lives, miles of door-to-door canvasses, and stumbling blocks along the way as they learned how to build an organization from scratch. They did this work—and continue to do it—for one reason: they want power.
When ordinary Americans volunteer in politics, they are trying to acquire power. Each voter they convince is a small piece of that power. Accumulated votes translate into politicians and policies advancing their values. If the group in Westmoreland County can convince this man to join them—if they can help him convince other members of his family and religious network to vote a certain way—the group might be able to change dozens of votes that they couldn’t change without him.
Each vote may seem like an insignificant drop in a 135-million-vote bucket, but the group labors with the knowledge that it is working in concert with like-minded organizations across the state and country each doing its part. The group also knows, and sees, that opposing groups, with very different values, are also getting supporters for the other side. They are in a pitched battle with one another, each seeking political control.
What they’re all doing, that’s politics.
I often think of groups like this during evenings I spend on my couch. As I fold laundry half-heartedly, I watch TV and clutch my phone. I refresh my Twitter feed to keep up on the latest political crisis, then toggle over to Facebook to read clickbait news stories, then over to YouTube to see a montage of juicy clips from the latest congressional hearing. I then complain to my family about all the things I don’t like that I have seen.
What I’m doing, that isn’t politics.
Most of us are engaging with politics to satisfy our own emotional needs and intellectual curiosities. That’s political hobbyism.
What I’m doing I call political hobbyism, a catchall phrase for consuming and participating in politics by obsessive news-following and online “slacktivism,” by feeling the need to offer a hot take for each daily political flare-up, by emoting and arguing and debating, almost all of this from behind screens or with earphones on. I am in good company: these behaviors represent how most “politically engaged” Americans spend their time on politics.
In 2018, I asked a representative sample of Americans to estimate about how much time they spend on any kind of political-related activity in a typical day. A third of Americans say they spend two hours or more each day on politics. Of these people, four out of five say that not one minute of that time is spent on any kind of real political work. It is all TV news and podcasts and radio shows and social media and cheering and booing and complaining to friends and family.
Political hobbyists tend to be older than the general public, though they are found in all age groups. They are disproportionately college educated, male, and white. In the current climate, they are more likely to be Democrats than Republicans or independents. Not only are they different from the general public, they also have a different profile from people who engage actively in political organizations. For example, of the people who spend two hours a day on politics but no time on volunteering, 56 percent are men. But of those who spend that much time on politics, with at least some of it spent volunteering, 66 percent are women.
Those who volunteer, such as the group in Westmoreland County that is out convincing neighbors to vote and to advocate, have something to show for their commitment to their political values. As for the rest of us, all we have is a sinking feeling of helplessness in the face of overwhelming challenge.
As a political scientist, I study the ways that ordinary people participate in politics. The political behavior of ordinary people is hard to understand. We don’t often reflect deeply on why we engage in politics. However, when we step back and investigate our political lives, we can paint a general picture of what motivates us. Summing up the time we spend on politics, it would be hard to describe our behavior as seeking to influence our communities or country. Most of us are engaging to satisfy our own emotional needs and intellectual curiosities. That’s political hobbyism.
Hobbyism is a serious threat to democracy because it is taking well-meaning citizens away from pursuing power. And the power vacuum will be filled.
Voraciously consuming politics or tinkering online seems harmless, but it’s a problem for two main reasons. First, we are making politics worse. Our collective treatment of politics as if it were a sport affects how politicians behave. They increasingly believe they benefit from feeding the red meat of outrage to their respective bases, constantly grandstanding for the chance that a video of themselves will go viral. In treating politics like a hobby, we have demanded they act that way.
Second, hobbyism takes us away from spending time working with others to acquire power. While we sit at home, people who seek political control are out winning over voters. In 2018, for instance, the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina went around offering to help opioid addicts, telling addicts that their addiction wasn’t their fault and that the white knights of the KKK were there to offer a helping hand. This image haunts me not just because in it I see an organization I fear that is serious about power, that recognizes how service to one person at a time aggregates into power. The image haunts me juxtaposed to how most of the rest of us are doing politics.
When the KKK is out in the streets offering opioid addicts help at the same time as most of us who are supposedly interested in politics are spending hours a day on social media, and at the same time as the mainstream political parties are unleashing a deluge of clickbait ads to raise money that will mostly pay for more ads, we should understand what is happening here: we are ceding political power to people who want it more than we do. Hobbyism is a serious threat to democracy because it is taking well-meaning citizens away from pursuing power. And the power vacuum will be filled.
For generations, political theorists and political scientists have worried about the average person’s capacity to participate in democracy. It is not difficult to find embarrassing statistics about how profoundly uninformed the typical American citizen is: most don’t know which political party is in the majority in Congress; most cannot name the three branches of the federal government. But the average citizen, who doesn’t spend much time thinking about politics, is not my concern here. My concern is the informed citizen who is already spending significant time and energy on politics, but without serious purpose. More likely than not, if you are reading this, this is about you. It’s about me, too.
My concern is the informed citizen who is already spending significant time and energy on politics, but without serious purpose. More likely than not, if you are reading this, this is about you.
Political hobbyism is found in all circles, but it is mainly a problem for people who are well educated and on the political center and left. Scholars have noted that as the share of college-educated Americans has increased since World War II (less than 5 percent had a degree in 1940; over 30 percent do today), those with a college degree have become less likely to see themselves as special, as responsible for their communities, as trustees, getting involved and encouraging others to do the same. They will follow the news, join an email list, make an occasional financial contribution, or attend a one-off rally, but they will shy away from deeper organizational engagement. Harvard professor Theda Skocpol has argued that this change in attitude by college-educated Americans—that they feel less special—may be the biggest reason for the precipitous decline in their engagement in local political and civic organizations since the mid-twentieth century. In how they consume news, identify as partisans, and engage from the sidelines, well-educated Americans now tend to treat politics as if it were a game.
While there is no shortage of political hobbyism on the political far right, which is consumed by conspiracy theories and outrageous news, hobbyism is a particularly serious problem among those in the ideological center and on the left. Self-proclaimed independents are prone to hobbyism because activism does not fit well with the above-the-fray self-image that they want to curate. Many independents say they care about politics, but they don’t feel at home in activities dominated by more partisan or ideological voices. As two leading political scientists note, independents end up plugging into politics in strictly superficial ways, angry when their favorite party does something they don’t like but unwilling to lift a finger to empower their own values.
Hobbyism a problem for Democrats because it is prominent among college-educated white Americans. Today, an American who is white, college educated, and interested in politics is 60 percent more likely to identify as a Democrat than a Republican. They spend more of their leisure time consuming political information than those without a college degree and less time than racial minorities volunteering for political organizations.
Political hobbyism on the left also stands in sharp contrast to the most successful recent political movements, which have been on the right, such as the right-to-life movement and the gun rights movement. These movements were developed around chapter-based, local organizations with thousands of volunteers willing to roll up their sleeves and, slowly and steadily, achieve modest political goals: taking over political party committees, quietly seeding judicial offices, recruiting state legislative candidates—activities that seem beneath the political hobbyist who is strictly infatuated with national political drama.
Show voters you care, serve them, empathize with their day-to-day concerns, and they will connect your expressions of concern with the Democratic brand.
Educated Democrats, fiddling around in politics online and voraciously consuming news, have a long legacy. They are reminiscent of a well-documented phenomenon from the 1950s of “amateur Democrats” who formed local clubs in major U.S. cities. These clubs, which were briefly popular in middle-class neighborhoods of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other cities, were dominated by the cosmopolitan, professional class. Officially, in their meetings, the clubs had an agenda: opposition to the insiders who controlled the Democratic Party as well as promotion of a liberal ideological worldview. But club meetings were often focused on debates of broad national concerns. In long nights at clubhouses or over snacks and coffee in living rooms, participants discussed grand political issues and hosted intellectuals as guest speakers.
What distinguished these clubs from the “regular” Democrats, who controlled levers of power in the Democratic Party at the time and who mobilized voters in working-class areas of these cities, were the motivations that brought them into politics. The regulars—political staffers and volunteers alike—sought recognition when they did a good job securing votes and organizing precincts. They sought power for their side. Achieving this goal meant doing good in the eyes of the voters. To win the voters’ favor, they delivered on issues that their voters cared about. But to these party regulars, policy issues were secondary to winning and holding power.
The amateur clubs wanted to win, and in several cases their leaders made headway into elective office, but what inspired the participation of rank-and-file amateurs was a social scene where they could argue about principles. They saw themselves as worldly in comparison to the working-class party regulars; the amateurs cared about the big important ideas, not fixing potholes and helping neighbors. Whereas party regulars employed long-term precinct captains who took pride in knowing their neighborhoods, the amateur clubs, composed of younger professionals, had trouble sustaining active volunteers for more than a year or two. The lawyers and doctors and other professionals had a distaste for the parochial. They didn’t have the time to organize city and suburban blocks. What they made time for was arguing into the night about the issues.
Amateur Democrats of the mid-twentieth century were, like today’s hobbyists, emotionally invested in politics. They celebrated electoral wins and mourned losses much more than did the seasoned organizers who were out in the neighborhoods for the party machines year after year. The eminent political scientist James Q. Wilson, author of The Amateur Democrat (1962), described an amateur as someone who “sees each battle as a ‘crisis’ and each victory as a triumph and each loss as a defeat for a cause.” The participants were in it for the emotion. One leader summed up, “The principal motivation for many of these people is the sheer fascination with politics.”
This fascination led to a desire to focus on ideology, rather than on acquiring power. According to Wilson, the professional class involved in the clubs tended to believe that if all voters thought through the issues as deeply as they did, their side would eventually win. The party regulars, on the other hand, who interacted daily with working-class voters, saw this view as naïve. The typical voter does not wish to think through public policy. The best thing to do is convince them, through actions, that Democrats care about them. Show voters you care, serve them, empathize with their day-to-day concerns, and they will connect your expressions of concern with the Democratic brand.
Today’s hobbyists possess the negative qualities of the amateurs (hyperemotional engagement, obsession with national politics, an insatiable appetite for debate) and none of the amateur’s positive qualities (the neighborhood meetings, the concrete goals, the leadership). Specific changes to media, technology, law, and political parties, combined with our persistent appetite for political information and intrigue, have played to our baser instincts. Technological changes have strengthened forms of political engagement that are motivated by emotional needs and a pursuit of personal gratification rather than a deeper commitment to the common good. Meanwhile, a century of political reforms—transparency laws, campaign finance laws, political party reforms—have impacted how ordinary people plug specifically into politics and have weakened power-seeking organizations.
Typical explanations for what’s ailing American democracy let ordinary, engaged citizens off the hook. Our own behavior demands at least as much reform as any political institution.
Moreover, typical explanations for what’s ailing American democracy let ordinary, engaged citizens off the hook. If we cast blame for political dysfunction on the media, on gerrymandering, on attempts at voter disenfranchisement, on wealthy political donors, on the Electoral College, on unapologetic racists, it’s hard to see how ordinary citizens could do much. But that’s awfully convenient; I believe that our own behavior demands at least as much reform as any political institution.
If you feel unfulfilled, melancholy, paralyzed by the sadness of the news and depth of our political problems, there is an alternative: actually doing politics. Citizens who want to empower their political values would be better off if they spent less time consuming politics as at-home amateurs and instead fell in line to help strengthen organizations and leaders. Rather than kibitzing with their social media friends, they could adopt some of the spirit of the party regulars, counting votes and building interpersonal relationships in their neighborhoods.
Remarkable Americans across the country are currently coming together to do just that, and they are making strides for their vision of what ought to be. In many cases, these volunteers are spending the same amount of time on politics as the hobbyists, but the volunteers are redirecting their political energy toward serving the material and emotional needs of their neighbors. If the typical engaged voters found meaning and pride in organizing ten, twenty, or a hundred voters instead of in dissecting the latest Washington controversy, they too would find redemption in politics as a service to others, a form of politics where participants get power to improve their communities, present and future.
Copyright © 2020 by Eitan Hersh. From the forthcoming book POLITICS IS FOR POWER: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change by Eitan Hersh to be published by Scribner, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.