Political scientist Eitan Hersh published a book last year that makes an interesting and provocative argument. The argument is that a huge amount of what passes for political engagement/action in American culture is a kind of fake politics that he calls “political hobbyism.”
This is how he explains the concept to Ezra Klein:
Political hobbyism is a catchall for all the ways we do politics to serve our own emotional or intellectual needs or wants rather than do a kind of power-seeking organized behavior. It’s arguing about the news, sharing the news, reacting to news, being an at-home pundit about the news. All of those things that involve giving politics your headspace and emotion but not doing the real work of it.
For Hersh, the real work of politics involves some sort of community engagement and/or organizing. Voting and contributing money have their place, of course, but these are fundamentally low engagement activities, especially if you’re not a plutocrat who can afford to buy elections in the style of both the original and new Gilded Ages. Indeed, if you contribute a little money to a candidate simply because the candidate just said something that made you feel good, that according to Hersh is not so much real political engagement as it is a kind of largely empty consumerism:
A lot of what’s happening in small-dollar donations, for example, is that the second a politician on the debate says stage says something really provocative you feel connected to them and you give them a $5 donation. Or you’re watching a congressional hearing and a politician grandstands and makes some speech. And because they grandstand in a way that you liked, you react by giving a $5 donation. So, what’s really going on is you have no goals except to reward a politician for saying something that feels great in the moment. I think that makes politics worse rather than better. And you are doing it more for yourself — for your own kind of emotional cathartic ends — rather than to move politics in a direction that’s good.
What Hersh especially laments is the idea that consuming media about politics and then arguing about the subject on the Internet represents some form of healthy political engagement. He notes that there are some striking gender and race dynamics at play in this regard:
If you look at the number of people who are spending time on politics, there’s about a third of the country that says they’re spending about two hours a day in news consumption. That might sound crazy at first, but if you add up all the time on podcasts or radio and reading the news and worrying about it and talking about it at the family dinner table, two hours actually doesn’t seem that unreasonable for a whole lot of people.
Almost none of [this time], let’s say 2 percent, is real community or volunteer engagement. The rest is mostly news consumption and sharing, talking, and debating online. The group that spends the most time in any kind of political engagement is white men, particularly college-educated white men. They know the most facts about politics, but they are not the group that is engaging most in real politics — organized politics with goals and strategies. You have women overwhelmingly in those roles. You also have racial minorities, particularly blacks, but also to some extent Latinos who spend less overall time on politics like following the news but more of their time is spent in these concrete ways.
This precise topic has been on my mind a great deal lately. I spend an enormous amount of time reading about politics and then writing about the political world, usually here at LGM, but also in the legacy media. Lately, the thing I’ve been writing about the most is the various ways in which America is sliding toward authoritarian ethno-nationalism, via a mass political movement that until recently could have been called crypto-fascist, but by now can be characterized without the adjectival modifier.
This has led to numerous occasions on which my wife has asked me what we are going to do about any of this. A typical exchange:
Me: You have to read this article. This whole country is going straight to hell.
Her: What are we going to do about it?
Me: Well I’m going to blog about it.
Her: No, I mean do about it.
It’s a fair cop, I suppose.
Anyway, let’s all argue about this on the Internet for awhile.