If Politics is Your Hobby Horse, You're Riding to Nowhere
A conversation with Eitan Hersh, author of the 2020 book Politics is for Power, on what has, or hasn't, changed since he wrote it.
As the 2022 election cycle speeds up, I thought it would be interesting to give a call to Eitan Hersh, a political scientist at Tufts University who focuses on how political campaigns engage voters and on how activists engage in politics. His 2020 book, Politics is for Power, impressed me a lot. In the review I wrote about it for the American Prospect, I said, “If you want to convince your political-junkie cousin to stop sharing memes on Twitter and arguing about the election on Facebook, buy him Politics Is for Power.” The book may sober you up about all the noise generated by the political process, because, as Hersh shows, Americans spend shockingly little time on civic activity. The average person reports having about five and a half hours of leisure per day, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Three-quarters of that time is spent watching TV or on a computer. Americans spend just about nine minutes, averaged across all of us, in civic or volunteer activity. Even people who are daily news consumers, the so-called “highly informed” part of the electorate, aren’t all that civically engaged, Hersh writes. They’re what he calls “political hobbyists,” people who spend hours spectating, consuming news and social media, and sharing content with others, imagining that this is doing politics.
Hersh thinks we’re still stuck in bad patterns of civic engagement. As he said to me, “Anytime a volunteer is talking (or writing) to a stranger, it's basically a mistake. It's like a Band-Aid for the lack of actual civic engagement. Right? So if you have one party that's leveraging church networks and school WhatsApp groups and you have another party that's writing postcards to strangers, that's not a good situation for the party of the postcard writers.” What follows is a lightly edited and condensed version of our conversation, which took place last Thursday.
Micah Sifry: Here we are in the middle of 2022. We've been through years of political upheaval and a lot more involvement in the political process: higher turnout, more volunteering, more people donating and obviously plenty of people just being part of the social media circus. Your book, Politics is for Power, came out in 2020. Do you think anything has changed in terms of the things that you identified around how most Americans who say they are engaged are primarily doing what you criticized as hobbyism? Have you seen any indication--whether it's from survey data or other work that people have done looking at the same topic--that anything has changed?
Eitan Hersh: Before I just disparage the public, I will say that one of the really gratifying things about writing that book and trying to speak to a nonacademic audience for the first time is that I regularly get emails from strangers who say that this changed their behavior in a positive way. Mostly it means that they felt the diagnosis about political hobbyism resonated with them, and they individually got off the couch. Maybe they’ve gotten involved in local politics or in some more meaningful strategic endeavor than they were doing before. But unfortunately, I’ve maybe gotten 100 emails like that and not 10,000.
In general, the answer to your question is no. It's probably worse than ever. As social scientists we see evidence of what you would expect after the 2020 election, when Democrats won, and then there’s some atrophy in Democratic organizing structures. Just like the collapse of the Tea Party after Trump won. Part of political hobbyism is this endless cycle where people's attention is focused on the competitive sport of politics. And so they only will operate under certain points in the election cycle. So the Tea Party collapsed until Biden wins, and then all of a sudden you start seeing people getting organized in school board meetings about critical race theory, a reemergence on the Republican side.
Micah Sifry: Yeah, I think that right. But what you were identifying was a deeper pattern of associational behavior that was mostly expressive, as opposed to focused on people strategically using their time to actually build power in meaningful ways. In the reception to the book, did you get any sort of invitations from party organizations or from labor unions or advocacy organizations? Did you see any headway for these ideas into the kinds of infrastructures that actually do a great deal of political organizing? Was there any interest from there?
Eitan Hersh: That's a really good question. I've given dozens of talks on the book and a lot of them have been to groups like church organizations and libraries and bookstores and local activist or party organizations. These are mostly local groups in individual communities. But I don't think there is widespread reception to the message honestly. I think that a lot of national groups don't have the appetite to have a solid, steady, grassroots organization as part of their strategy.
Micah Sifry: And what about foundations and funders?
Eitan Hersh: That's a great question. I am now a Democracy Fellow with the Emerson Collective, which is a wonderful organization, where I’m focusing on my next project, which is about the civic role of business leaders. I'd like to think that probably part of the reason I was honored with that fellowship was because of the work I’ve done on civic engagement.
I don't know about other foundations or equivalent entities. In general, I think there's a problem in that world which is essentially a version of political hobbyism, where there's a big focus on national issues and a lot of imagining that heroes can come in and save the day with a quick fix on things that will never happen, rather than investments in slow-and-steady community engagement. In fact, this is one of the reasons why I'm turning my attention to the specific role of business leaders because if it's not Ground Zero for political hobbyism, it might be close and it trickles down in a big way.
Micah Sifry: So you feel business leaders might be a fertile territory because they have a longer term horizon? Or because more of them are turning their attention towards political dysfunction as a problem that worries them, and therefore they might be a receptive audience for better strategies?
Eitan Hersh: I think it's a combination of things. First of all, the relationship between business and politics is changing very quickly. And the parties are really for the first time in modern American history realigning with their relationship to business. Up until the last few years you would think of the Republicans as the party of business, and the data I'm collecting certainly says that's no longer true. That’s because the college educated workforce that dominates business leadership is no longer Republican. And of course, that's in part because the Republican Party has changed and has made a whole bunch of judgments related to populism, immigration, trade policy--a whole bunch of stuff that is no longer consistent with business interests. I’m interested in businesspeople because they have a lot of latent power in the political system, but use it in nonstrategic ways, and they do so for a lot of the same reasons as other political hobbyists who don't get involved in politics.
One of those reasons is that a lot of college-educated political hobbyists think actually engaging in politics is beneath them, particularly at the state level. The idea that you're going to go support a state legislative candidate or a county judge candidate strikes a lot of people as sort of parochial and beneath them. And I think you see that among organizational leaders especially. They're kind of fancy rich people who could maybe see a US senator or president as their peer. But God forbid, they don’t see a state lawmaker as someone that they're going to hang out with and learn from and talk to and lobby.
Micah Sifry: I think you're right about the realignment underway. And I certainly be curious to see whatever you find out about the different types of civic behavior that different business leaders may demonstrate.
I'm going to just push back a tiny bit when you say that you don't think there's been much change at the grassroots level. Two things happened after 2017 on the broad Democratic side. One being a lot of people who got pulled into the political-industrial complex that uses individuals’ money and time as inputs for data-driven campaigns. The sort of thing you wrote your first book about. A lot of those people want to believe that they did something useful. And a lot of the campaigns that pulled them in certainly were telling them they were doing something useful by making phone calls or door knocking or writing postcards. The question is how much that activity added up to in terms of significantly tilting the way elections went. In close elections, we shouldn't ignore that. But I think it's an exaggeration to say that it made a huge difference. There was a lot of money and time wasted.
The second thing that happened along with that was in a variety of places, groups of people did coalesce locally, and either joined already existing or created their own networks, to do the kind of ongoing political organizing that builds power, and that that was not well supported from above by either the Democratic Party or the so-called resistance groups. But despite that, many people found the others just like them who felt that their only choice was to get involved locally and build power where they can have the greatest impact.
Eitan Hersh: Yeah, let me respond to those points. I think you're right. And I think probably I just had an overly demoralizing perspective when I first answered the question you asked. Honestly, you’ve kind of caught me in a melancholy mood with this interview.
Micah Sifry: One of us is allowed to be demoralizing, while the other one can be optimistic. So we can just take turns if you want.
Eitan Hersh: On the second point, I think you're right. My book came out early 2020. I think we've had multiple examples of people plugging in locally, oftentimes inspired by national events, but realizing that their response should be local. I think there's been a growing movement in many, many cities of all political stripes on housing and an awareness that astronomical housing prices are at least in part the result of state and local policy.
And then I think we have the example after the big Black Lives Matter protests where a lot of communities saw the need for serious changes to policing as a result of local activism, again, inspired by national events. People realized, in different communities, that they have to plug in locally to what's going on in their own police department.
And again, on the right I think the anti-critical race theory protests and organizing in school boards is a prime example of how to do local organizing. What's brilliant about it is that it leverages existing networks. So you had the networks that are set up for school communities already, like a WhatsApp group of parents getting leveraged when one person on that list says, “Hey, come to this meeting, we're talking about how our teachers are talking about these sensitive issues.” And all of a sudden you get 1000 people in a school board meeting.
To your other point, I wanted to push back to you because there has been a rise and, especially I think on the Democratic side, in the use of strategies like door-to-door canvassing and phone banking and letter writing. A huge number of people who got engaged in the 2020 election did it in exactly those ways.
Micah Sifry: I'm agreeing with you. I'm just saying that many of them did it in ways that were of dubious effectiveness because instead of knocking on doors local to them or calling people local to them, they were virtually parachuting across the country and bombarding people in swing districts or swing states where we also know that over-communication can backfire. Yes, there was a great deal of involvement. There are probably a few million people now who know how to use a phone dialer to phonebank. But the effect of all of that is up for debate.
Eitan Hersh: It seems to me that they were not learning the right lesson, because they were learning that these strategies are kind of “scientifically proven” to be effective in producing one percent increases or something like that in turnout. But I think they didn't learn the lesson, which is what you're saying, that anytime a volunteer is talking (or writing) to a stranger, it's basically a mistake. It's like a Band-Aid for the lack of actual civic engagement. Right? So if you have one party that's leveraging church networks and school WhatsApp groups and you have another party that's writing postcards to strangers, that's not a good situation for the party of the postcard writers.
Micah Sifry: Right. I think that whether those volunteers have learned anything from the experience, and thus altered their behavior, is open for more investigation. That's all I would say. And at least the positive side of this is, in many places, people did get drawn into more effective, local, ongoing organizing that you talked about in the book. It's just that we don't have many ways of seeing that yet in things like the census, the General Social Survey data and the like. We’re also only talking about changes in the last few years.
A different question. One of one of your most intriguing ideas in the book was the suggestion that local party committees, or state parties, interested in the project of rebuilding their ability to really involve and inspire voters should take some of the money that they spend on ads and put it into more direct forms of community services, like babysitting or daycare. Did you come across anybody anywhere who is running with this notion of shifting some of their campaign resources away from expensive paid media and towards sort of direct community service provision?
Eitan Hersh: Yeah, a few groups have come to talk to me about that. They’re all local, like a group in California and one in Kentucky. Some of them, I think, were actual party organizations, but they also might have been just a kind of pop-up group that was dominant in the 2020 election. They don't have the party label, but they want to use this strategy as a way of building community and proving that their values are essentially aligned with the community's values and needs. Definitely no state political party came to me and said, hey, that's a great idea, let's work on that. And I don't know of any group that's trying to do that in any kind of scaled way.
Micah Sifry: Final question. So the book is obviously not centered on the emergence and ubiquity of social media. But obviously, it's a topic you dwell on a lot. The way that so many people have been drawn into thinking that they're doing politics by commenting, sharing, being in a Facebook group or whatever. We seem to be in a moment of high alarm about the role of social media in making things worse, whether it's undermining democracy or fostering more extremism or polarization. Where are you on that debate? Extremely alarmed? See it as part of a larger problem? Or, no, most of those people are just jabbering away at their desks and they're never going do anything more than that?
Eitan Hersh: I think there's the alarm component related to the extreme ends of the social media spectrum. And I’m just depressed about the standard political junkie on social media. I was never really a big Facebook user. I haven't been active on that website for years. For a while I wasn't on Twitter at all. And then when I started writing this book on political hobbyism, one of my colleagues said, you can't really understand political hobbyists without being on Twitter. So, for the last few years, I've been on Twitter, and I find it horrifying. A lot of journalists and a lot of political scientists, I think, have a kind of a nuts view about politics and are impatient and want massive change that the public doesn't want and have no sense of nuance. And they are nasty. I find it frightening. I find it terrible.
Micah Sifry: So even among your professional and near-professional peers, you see social media like Twitter effectively bringing out the worst in people.
Eitan Hersh: It's more bringing out groupthink amongst people who I wouldn't have guessed would be so susceptible to it. Or maybe they’re just total ideologues and that’s just who they are. As an academic, I kind of think part of our job is to be a little contrarian or when I think about what a journalist does, they should always be asking: “Well, what about this? Are we sure about this?” They should be second-guessing everything. But on Twitter, I feel like it's not nearly enough about challenging ideas and kicking the tires. It's so groupthink oriented. I still struggle to understand why that that seems to be the case. It’s devastating to me that so many smart people fall into that pattern.
I think that in real community spaces, like religious community spaces, I feel there's a lot more breathing room for people to ask questions and debate and have an honest conversation about politics. Personally, my goal is to be in spaces that are filled with wisdom, inspiration, respect, with people dedicated to building community. The view of social media that I’ve gotten, at least on Twitter, suggests that time spent on that website is inconsistent with my goal.
Odds and Ends
—The online ad marketplace is a very opaque place, and there are few better guides into it than Nandini Jammi and Claire Atkin of Check My Ads. Here’s an astonishing new post from them looking at a rare disclosure of what a million-dollar purchase of Google Ads actually delivers if an ad buyer just lets Google automatically do the ad placements. The answer ought to be deeply disturbing to most ad buyers: after pushing a lot of money at Yahoo (known for ad fraud) and literally pouring 10% of it into “unknown” sites (imagine marketers spending 10% of their budgets with no idea where it goes), the top news site favored by Google is none other than Fox News, which gets more ads placed on it by Google Ads than the top ten major newspaper sites. Other well-known disinformation platforms like Breitbart are high on the list. As they write, “Google has never enforced its policies against hate, racism and bigotry on Breitbart. In fact, it has done the opposite. Google has awarded the outlet with top billing. Google is a ‘politically neutral’ company that is financing Breitbart and Fox News at rates that no trusted news media organization comes close to touching.”
—Good news: So-called “parents’ rights” candidates for local school board lost the majority of their races across New York’s Capitol Region and downstate as well last Tuesday. As Gary Stern and Nancy Cutler reported for LoHud.com, “In Lakeland, Clarkstown and Yorktown — districts that have seen extensive conflict over "diversity, equity and inclusion" initiatives in schools — candidates that openly questioned these anti-racism policies were defeated. Among other candidates rejected by voters were a Save Our Schools leader who ran in Nyack, a conservative intellectual who railed against the "new anti-racism" and ran in Blind Brook, and a local radio host who called DEI an "existential threat" and ran in New Rochelle.” Moms for Liberty endorsed 30 candidates across Long Island; all but eight were defeated, Newsday reports. Local organizing plus, in some cases, mobilizing by teachers unions, made a big difference—but you wouldn’t know it from the lack of national coverage of this counter-trend.
—Imagine starting your organization with a single $4 million donation from Facebook and then trying to claim, with a straight face, that your effort to fight anti-trust legislation is independent. That’s what an outfit called American Edge is doing, according to this eye-opening story by Cat Zakkrzewski and Elizabeth Dwoskin in the Washington Post. Dusting off an old deep-lobbying playbook pioneered by AT&T when it made lots of grants to old-school civil rights groups in order to buy their opposition to net neutrality rules, American Edge has poured money into the National Black U.S. Chamber of Commerce, whose leader dutifully wrote a pro-tech oped as a result.
—Today I learned that not only does the Southern Baptist Convention have a huge, just-exposed problem with rampant sexual abuse by everyone from youth pastors to top ministers, it has nearly 14 million members across 47,000 congregations. That’s a lot of civic infrastructure underpinning the most conservative-leaning religious denomination in America.
—The Civic Design 2022 conference, which will take place virtually in November, is looking for your proposals.
—Finally, I didn’t really have lunch with New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, but after reading his Sunday column about his off-the-record lunch with President Biden, which managed to combine a sober warning about the rise of far-right authoritarianism in America with some old-fashioned hippie-punching, I wrote this in response on Medium.
Speaking of Medium, please subscribe via this page if you want access to all my pieces there. It’s just $50/year and membership gets you access to lots of terrific content.