I may have said “new year, same gig” in my last column, but I’d like to briefly reconsider that phrase. Instead of going into the minutia of some current event and relating it to broader narratives and trends, I’d like to remark on political hobbyism and apathy.
In the past few weeks, I’ve listened to numerous interviews of Eitan Hersh, an associate professor of political science and civic studies at Tufts University who published a book entitled “Politics Is for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action and Make Real Change” in 2020. I’ve just gotten my hands on a copy and am eager to read into the fine detail of his argument, but I would like to share some thoughts I’ve been conjuring up over time from listening to some of his talks.
Hersh characterizes political hobbyism as a surface-level and emotional connection with politics, not for the betterment of people nor some specific goal. It is instead some self-fulfilling personal project of emotional satisfaction, “no closer to engaging in politics than watching SportsCenter is to playing football,” according to an article by Hersh from The Atlantic. A demonstrable example of a political hobbyist that Hersh has given numerous times is someone who can tell you all the juicy specifics about the Robert Mueller report and Sharpiegate, but doesn’t have a clue about how to advocate for causes they care about in their own community. Thus, what’s harmful about hobbyism is that hobbyists think they are engaging in real politics, while in reality, they just compulsively read the news, send angry tweets and occasionally make a donation. This is a pitfall that Republicans and conservatives know how to avoid. Who says I never give my conservative friends across the aisle any credit?
Consider the fact that anti-maskers and traditionalist parents flocked to school board meetings to decry the tyrannical mandates of face coverings in schools during a literal pandemic or to argue about some half-baked understanding of critical race theory. Think of how evangelicals have been able to take hold of the Republican Party, orienting it toward social conservatism with the help of community involvement of churches. These perfectly exemplify the willingness of conservatives to utilize levers of power and points of community to advance their agendas. That’s not hobbyism — that’s politics.
In my own personal life, I interned at a local town hall during high school and saw the conservative flank of the local rural community band together to decisively vote down an infrastructure referendum, and then go on to vote out the town supervisor in the primary who supported the project. As someone who attended town board meetings for months prior, I can tell you that ordinary constituents did not hold back in pushing their town council members and massively impacting their community. Those of us on the political left have a lot to learn from examples like these, and seeing community engagement and mobilization as a virtue, not a vice, is a great place to start.
On the flip side of political hobbyism, where people genuinely believe they are deeply involved in politics, political apathy is the neglect and ambivalence to politics. Political apathy or ambivalence may coincide with other emotions like cynicism and nihilism, resulting in disengagement and hopelessness in one or many levers of power.
In my last column, I wrote about nihilism in the context of the Supreme Court, so I will spare you of the full argument. But when it comes to things like political offices, political decisions, a bill on the floor or even a local infrastructure referendum, there will be an outcome. There is no such thing as inaction in this sense, but competing interests where one trumps the other. Unfortunately, many simply sit out and don’t engage while the wheel keeps on turning. Pew Research Center found that in the 2018 primary elections for the House of Representatives, only 10.8 percent of registered Democrats came out to vote. Being that young people vote considerably less than older voters, I’ll let you consider just how low the turnout numbers were for those 18 to 24 years old.
Ironically, these issues of hobbyism and ambivalence lead to similar negative outcomes: polarization and legislative deadlock. Us hobbyists get so involved and identify so strongly with parties that we treat politics like some sports game, dogmatically identifying with “our side” and demonizing “the others,” forgetting that policy is supposed to be the end goal. Politics simply becomes a game of dunking on this or that dissenter. While those of us who are more ambivalent check out of the system, lawmakers write destructive pieces of legislation at no political cost as nonpartisans sit on the sidelines. We can’t all care about every issue, but we can all care about at least one.
I will be reading Hersh’s book in the coming weeks, and I recommend you do the same, or at least begin reconsidering political power and some ways in which you can help and heal yourself and others. Is there a politician’s campaign you find inspiring? Don’t just vote for them, but reach out to see how you may be able to volunteer. If you have connections to your local church or other community center, connecting with others and forming bonds is not misguided, but therapeutic. We’re all together in this crazy thing called “life,” so let’s get to work.
Eleanor Gully is a senior triple-majoring in French, economics and philosophy, politics and law.