A brilliant condemnation of political hobbyism—treating politics like entertainment—and a call to arms for well-meaning, well-informed citizens who consume political news, but do not take political action.
Who is to blame for our broken politics? The uncomfortable answer to this question starts with ordinary citizens with good intentions. We vote (sometimes) and occasionally sign a petition or attend a rally. But we mainly “engage” by consuming politics as if it’s a sport or a hobby. We soak in daily political gossip and eat up statistics about who’s up and who’s down. We tweet and post and share. We crave outrage. The hours we spend on politics are used mainly as pastime.
Instead, we should be spending the same number of hours building political organizations, implementing a long-term vision for our city or town, and getting to know our neighbors, whose votes will be needed for solving hard problems. We could be accumulating power so that when there are opportunities to make a difference—to lobby, to advocate, to mobilize—we will be ready. But most of us who are spending time on politics today are focused inward, choosing roles and activities designed for our short-term pleasure. We are repelled by the slow-and-steady activities that characterize service to the common good.
In Politics Is for Power, pioneering and brilliant data analyst Eitan Hersh shows us a way toward more effective political participation. Aided by political theory, history, cutting-edge social science, as well as remarkable stories of ordinary citizens who got off their couches and took political power seriously, this book shows us how to channel our energy away from political hobbyism and toward empowering our values.
Tufts University political science professor Hersh argues in this earnest yet somewhat mislabeled debut that "political hobbyism," the practice of obsessively consuming political news without engaging in real-world activism, is not only a waste of time, but is actively harming American democracy. In 2018, Hersh surveyed "a random sample of 1,000 Americans" about their political engagement. The vast majority of respondents admitted that they didn't volunteer for a political organization, with most declaring that they didn't have the time to do so. Yet more than half also acknowledged spending an hour or more every day reading about politics or watching political news programs. Hersh argues that hobbyism inflames public opinion on both sides of the political spectrum, making elected officials less likely to compromise. He provides case studies of activists who put serious effort into advocating for their preferred causes, and, in the book's final 20 pages, offers specific guidance on how readers can stop being hobbyists and start participating in the political process by performing community service or becoming an elected delegate. Though it's billed as a how-to, the book leans more toward cultural study. While readers may wish that Hersh had included more practical advice, this richly detailed account effectively highlights an issue affecting contemporary political discourse.