Stuck on the Political Sidelines

Stuck on the Political Sidelines

Zak Yudhishthu, Contributing Writer

Political media largely consists of addictive little bites of brain candy: a certain disdained senator inadvertently owning himself in a tweet, a ridiculous news clip from the day’s congressional hearings making the internet rounds, a beloved representative attacking their political opponent on a livestream. Many of us pop these brain candies every day, always coming back for another brief sugar rush.

These brain candies accumulate into hours of personal political consumption. Across cable, newspapers and social media, we endlessly spectate the theater of political drama. We get to feel intellectual and emotional excitement. We celebrate perceived wins and mourn perceived losses, discuss and argue with peers and shape our own political identities. Consuming the news seemingly does a lot for us.

Yet for all that we get out of following politics, it is missing something — it is an activity devoid of action. It does nothing to help people amass power and create change. Life as an avid political follower is not engaging in politics; it is engaging in political hobbyism, and it’s degenerative to both ourselves and the communities we inhabit.

In his book “Politics is for Power,” political scientist Eitan Hersh studies and analyzes political hobbyism, finding some concerning results. Hersh found in a 2018 study that “a third of Americans say they spend two hours or more each day on politics. Of these people, four out of five say that not one minute of that time is spent on any kind of real political work.” This group of candy-popping hobbyists disproportionately consists of college-educated voters. 

Not all Mac students are caught in the trap of political hobbyism; there’s regular organizing on campus. Signs, tents and tables abound, and students volunteer on campaigns for local candidates or issues. There’s a protest on campus this week to urge Macalester to divest from Enbridge Energy. These are examples of students truly engaging in politics, who are doing what Hersh describes as “working with others to acquire power” and “empower[ing] their political values.”

Yet much of our cohort, students and faculty alike, aren’t engaging in politics in this way — we’re political hobbyists. So why do we fall into the trap of political hobbyism? I’m as guilty of this as anyone I know. The news feels important; policy outcomes can be matters of life and death, and the behavior and language of politicians evidently has the power to affect the actions and beliefs of regular people. I want to be aware of the things that matter to my life and the lives of those around me. As a voter, I care about making informed decisions on my ballot.

However, there’s more to political hobbyism than a sense of interest in important occurrences. We also use politics as a personal tool for intellectual and emotional stimulation. Learning about obscure issues and debating over them with my peers in a dorm room is an interesting and engaging thing to do. There’s no innate problem with personal intellectual engagement, but we must acknowledge that this casual form of political engagement is nothing more than that — for regular people, understanding the national political sphere doesn’t translate to creating any kind of change in it.

In a more pernicious way, we consume politics for emotional and moral satisfaction.  The moral stakes in politics loom large in our minds, leading us to have irrational emotional ties to political outcomes. To use the framework of moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, “morality binds and blinds,” strengthening our group loyalties at the expense of thoughtful engagement. When a politician that we personally don’t like — and for most political hobbyists, there are many — does something bad, it feels good. We do nothing to give these out-group members the benefit of the doubt. Similarly, we cheerlead for our favored in-group politicians and feel thrilled when they do something exciting, reacting in a manner often disproportionate to the real impact of their actions. We inwardly use politics to satisfy our strongest moral intuitions.

All of this political hobbyism damages our democracy. Hersh also details how our use of politics for personal pleasure decays the American political system. When a politician delivers a controversy-stirring, media-perfect moment in a debate or congressional hearing, they are rewarded with the hobbyists’ attention and money. Representative Joe Wilson was rewarded with $2.7 million in donations after he screamed “you lie!,” interrupting a presidential address by President Obama. If we use politics for “own kind of emotional cathartic ends, rather than to move politics in a direction that’s good,” politicians see incentives to mire themselves in controversy and polarize around controversial issues – instead of actually focusing on the process of good governance. As political hobbyists, we fail to utilize our power as democratic participants beyond encouraging drama and animosity.

We must remember that most political hobbyism, on an individual basis, does little to positively shape electoral or policy-related outcomes. After I had read enough articles to have a solid understanding of the filibuster’s role in passing legislation, the world remained exactly the same. As much as we fawn over some politicians and despise others, we won’t even get the chance to vote for most of them. Political hobbyism cannot stand unaccompanied by actions that move us towards the long-term change we hope for.

The power is in our hands to resist hobbyism’s lure and work towards politics as the practice of power. Both within Macalester and beyond it, we all have social capital that we can wield for good. We can organize, advocate and create the change that we’d like to see — many around us already do. Simply consuming politics won’t do much good for us. But truly engaging in politics will direct our energy into constructing a more just, healthy and stable society.

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