Watching Rachel Maddow Is Not Enough

Obsessively following the news but doing nothing to help your side gain power is less than useful.

Raise your hand if the following describes you: You follow politics closely. If you missed President Trump’s most recent COVID-19 press conference, your Twitter feed gave you the play-by-play. You have the presidential primary calendar just about memorized and can even distinguish candidates’ subtle policy differences in a crowded field. You often take to Twitter or Facebook to commiserate on the government’s latest coronavirus response with your co-partisans, defend your stances, or at least silently judge the few you follow who disagree. You struggle to understand why others don’t think the way you do about the other political party or its leaders. You can’t help but check out the latest polls, especially if they are from battleground states. You vote in every election, even on local candidates or propositions you never thought about before hopping into the booth. But yet, you belong to no political or community organizations. 

Politics Is for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change
by Eitan Hersh
Scribner, 288 pp

Congrats—you’re a political hobbyist, and you’re doing politics all wrong. At least so says Eitan Hersh, a political scientist and the author of Politics Is for Power. 

Hersh’s book offers an approachable reality check for voters. He forces readers to grapple with the uncomfortable reality that much of how they engage with politics isn’t necessarily helpful. In fact, he argues, the hobbyist forms of engagement are often precisely the reason why many popular causes struggle to be advanced. 

For political hobbyists, the time we put into following the news is more akin to a spectator sport than a goal-driven purpose. Any influence we might enjoy comes from behind screens, not from any meaningful human connection. Sure, we may vote, but that’s about it in terms of tangible effort. Hobbyists’ activities are cloaked “in the language of civics,”  Hersh notes, but are, at their core, virtue signaling, meant to show that we are in the fight because we post about it. It’s the “I VOTED” sticker of engagement—it lets people know we are involved but doesn’t demand any follow-up. We follow to be entertained.

So, then, what does Hersh say should ground our political involvement? Simple: the pursuit of power. The goal isn’t as contemptible as it sounds. In Hersh’s words, “Getting power means convincing people to take actions they wouldn’t otherwise take.” For example, individual citizens can organize to influence the voting decisions of others—including the decision to vote at all—or groups can interact with lawmakers and lobby for their cause. Even if you live in one of the many places that are dominated by a single political party, power can and should be sought to support your preferred candidate, advance an ignored issue, or persuade non-active citizens to invest their time on worthy causes within your community, like staffing food banks or revitalizing playgrounds. Voting is far from the only activity that can produce real change.

We’ve periodically seen such widespread commitment to activism. After Donald Trump’s election in 2016, citizens—particularly women, many of them not previously political—marched, worked phone banks, canvassed, and ran for office in pursuit of Democratic Party victory with an explicit purpose to get others to do the same. The actions weren’t revolutionary, but in the end, each contributed to large shifts of power at all levels of
government—including the election of the most diverse freshman class in the history of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Hersh goes further. He warns that political hobbyists aren’t just doing politics wrong, they may actually be making it more dysfunctional. He writes, “Political hobbyism isn’t just a distinct activity from the pursuit of political power; it hinders the pursuit of political power.” Why? Hobbyists spend their time not seeking power, but talking about it passionately from the comfort of the sidelines. It creates a doom loop: The more engaged in hobbyist politics we become, the less likely we are to spend our time effecting change.

That’s not all. Hobbyists are trapped in their own curated echo chamber of political media that prevents those most plugged in from hearing alternative perspectives. Elected officials respond to this reality because they know full well that those who consume the most political news are most likely to turn out on Election Day. Thus, hobbyism contributes to immovable litmus tests for candidates wherein they become most beholden to the loudest, most active, and often most extreme voices within their base. 

An overlooked danger with Hersh’s desire for more activism is that hobbyists turned activists can actually lead to even more dysfunction. After Barack Obama’s election in 2008, Tea Party conservatives, aided by the Koch brothers’ money but operating overwhelmingly at the grass roots, moved the entire Republican Party to the right by convincing fellow conservatives to “primary” insufficiently ideological GOP lawmakers. Unsurprisingly, the freshman Tea Party members held the GOP House caucus hostage to its nihilist views of government, leading to repeated government shutdowns and paving the way for the election of Trump. 

The Democrats have also experienced an ideological insurgency with the rise of an activist Bernie/AOC left. But while that movement has helped shift the party’s agenda to the left, it has had minimal impact on electoral outcomes to date. The vast majority of Democrats who flipped congressional races in 2018 were mainstream liberals and moderates, as is the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden. Unlike the GOP, the Democratic Party still has a sizable moderate wing of voters who, when they move from political hobbyists to participants, can have a powerful impact. In an era of what political scientists call “asymmetrical polarization,” Hersh’s thesis about the moderating influence of citizen activism may be (like so much else in today’s politics) far more true of one party than the other. 

Another limitation is Hersh’s suggestions of what citizens should do instead of engaging in hobbyism. Only the last 20 pages are devoted to action items, and even then, it’s broad strokes: focus on the local; build community; listen; don’t think short term; build power one conversation at a time. The final chapter reads more as a pep talk for interested citizens rather than as a specific playbook of concrete steps for hobbyists to change their ways. 

Perhaps Hersh’s biggest, if under-researched, idea is a fundamental rethinking of how political parties might leverage their own power. In essence, Hersh argues that parties would have a much higher return on their campaign capital if they literally invested in direct community services. 

It’s no secret that campaigns are flooded with cash. The vast majority—$3 billion in 2016 alone—are, as Hersh puts it, “shallow, one-off” campaign ads that aim to show voters that the party or candidate truly cares about them. They are one-time support requests under the guise of compassion. After Election Day, the parties—particularly local parties—all but disappear until the campaign cycle refreshes and the next ask soon follows. 

Instead of this system, Hersh suggests that parties should use a portion of campaign money to provide continual direct services that actually help citizens. He writes, “Imagine if some of those millions of dollars were instead allocated to tie a party’s brand name to actual service such as backup childcare or eldercare.” There is no shortage of community needs that would fit the model: addiction and mental health clinics; job training; financial and tax services; auto repair shops; civic training. Communities would benefit from the services while citizens would see the parties and candidates literally putting their money where their mouths are before asking for anything. They would earn support in service first. Wouldn’t this engender voter good will far more effectively than even the most viral campaign spot? 

Of course, providing these services is not simple, nor does it come without risks. Many countries, including the United States, have a long history with clientelism—the trading of services for political support—sometimes with disastrous results. In American politics, the strategy is filled with legal land mines and potential campaign finance violations, and in reporting the book Hersh made only a few calls to lawyers to find the legal line. Even if a service framework can be legally established, charges of vote buying and patronage are inevitable, though such fears can be somewhat alleviated with equal and free service access regardless of political affiliation or voting history. Moreover, the service model could result in a new generation of party machines and bosses who hold outsize political power because of their control over the service apparatus. 

The point is that there is room to experiment. If direct services are a bridge too far, parties would be wise to rethink their voter activation models, like the Democratic Party in Texas, which recently unveiled a new platform that streamlines the voter registration process and provides a pre-addressed envelope to the newly registered voter so they can send in their ballot, with the postage bill paid for by the party. Communities, voters, and lasting political organizations could all benefit from new lines of service that focus on training activists rather than turning out voters. The latter would come as a result of the former. But first, we can start by recognizing our likely contribution to political hobbyism. Then it’s up to us to decide to do something different, something lasting, something more connective in pursuit of our preferred political outcomes.

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Casey Burgat

Casey Burgat is an assistant professor and director of the Legislative Affairs program at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. You can find him on Twitter, @CaseyBurgat.