Political hobbyists are ruining politics

Many college-educated people think they are deeply engaged in politics. They follow the news—reading articles like this one—and debate the latest developments on social media. They might sign an online petition or throw a $5 online donation at a presidential candidate. Mostly, they consume political information as a way of satisfying their own emotional and intellectual needs. These people are political hobbyists. What they are doing is no closer to engaging in politics than watching SportsCenter is to playing football. From Eitan Hersh, author of Politics Is for Power, in The Atlantic.

For Querys Matias, politics isn’t just a hobby. Matias is a 63-year-old immigrant from the Dominican Republic. She lives in Haverhill, Massachusetts, a small city on the New Hampshire border. In her day job, Matias is a bus monitor for a special-needs school. In her evenings, she amasses power. Matias is a leader of a group called the Latino Coalition in Haverhill, bringing together the Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and Central Americans who together make up about 20 percent of the residents of the city. The coalition gets out the vote during elections, but it does much more than that.

…Unlike organizers such as Matias, the political hobbyists are disproportionately college-educated white men. They learn about and talk about big important things. Their style of politics is a parlor game in which they debate the issues on their abstract merits. Media commentators and good-government reform groups have generally regarded this as a cleaner, more evolved, less self-interested version of politics compared with the kind of politics that Matias practices. In reality, political hobbyists have harmed American democracy and would do better by redirecting their political energy toward serving the material and emotional needs of their neighbors.

posted by Bella Donna (79 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite

Also in Boston Review: previously “if you’re reading this is is probably about you.”
posted by The Whelk at 10:07 AM on March 2 [8 favorites]
This is a great piece and these statistics are worth reflecting on:

In a 2018 survey, I found that white people reported spending more time reading, talking, and thinking about politics than black people and Latinos did, but black people and Latinos were twice as likely as white respondents to say that at least some of the time they dedicate to politics is spent volunteering in organizations. Likewise, those who were college-educated reported that they spend more time on politics than other Americans do—but less than 2 percent of that time involves volunteering in political organizations. The rest is spent mostly on news consumption (41 percent of the time), discussion and debate (26 percent), and contemplating politics alone (21 percent). Ten percent of the time is unclassifiable….

Daily news consumers are very interested in politics, so they say, but they aren’t doing much: In 2016, most reported belonging to zero organizations, having attended zero political meetings in the past year, and having worked zero times with others to solve a community problem.

I find that the more time I spend volunteering, the less interested I am in arguing about politics. I think it’s because for me, arguing about politics is a way of (badly) managing anxiety caused by politics, while volunteering in my community always shows me how many other people care (even if they care differently to me) and want to get involved, which eases my anxiety.
posted by sallybrown at 10:10 AM on March 2 [85 favorites]

Eitan is one of my partners PhD advisors. He is cool. I haven’t read his book yet, but I have seen him speak and he is convincing. Also totally unafraid to go right in the political hobbyist lions den (aka NPR, the Atlantic, etc….) and start pulling people’s cards.
posted by youthenrage at 10:17 AM on March 2 [5 favorites]
Omg yes yes yes, this.

I know several of these educated cis white male hobbyists IRL and one of them doesn’t even bother to vote. The bloviating nauseates.
posted by esoteric things at 10:23 AM on March 2 [17 favorites]

I find volunteering and direct action helps me crystallize and clarify my arguments, while also being a tangible thing I can say I did to stave off the impending doom, wether it’s helping out at books trough bars, Court escorting, DSA stuff, canvassing, etc

The most current thing to do with too online comrades is to hit them with “for every inane twitter argument you get in you have to phonebank for an hour or man the coffee table for the families waiting to cross the bridge at Riker’s or stuff some envelopes. Are you in a political movement or a fandom?

(It also stops me from “one on one canvassing at the bar” which I have to say has a better track record then you’d think but is not good for my wallet or health)
posted by The Whelk at 10:24 AM on March 2 [34 favorites]

I have some ideas that aren’t yet fully formed that he sparked, about how this political hobbyist class formed – how they (we?) got the hell out of the suburbs, got educated and became able to live/work in basically any big city. Now they (we?) are rootless, which was encouraged by class culture, and have no idea how to put down roots and become members of the communities they (we.) live in. I’m partly of this class (grew up in the soulless burbs, used college as a way to get the hell out and didn’t look back, etc…) but now I wouldn’t say I am any more (now I’m a rootless, metropolitan, self employed, service class, drug war felon with a college degree). Many of the people I know from back in the day are of the political hobbyist class, and I shift between blaming them for thinking Facebook activism is enough and sympathizing with them because I think many of them don’t even know where to start.
posted by youthenrage at 10:25 AM on March 2 [8 favorites]
The more things change, the more they stay the same..

“It would be entertaining, if it wasn’t so pathetically tragic, to hear Uncle James fuss in here in the morning and announce, ‘I must just go down into the town and find out what the men there are saying about Mexico. Matters are beginning to look serious there.’ Then he patters away into the town, and talks in a highly serious voice to the tobacconist, incidentally buying an ounce of tobacco; perhaps he meets one or two others of the world’s thinkers and talks to them in a highly serious voice, then he patters back here and announces with increased importance, ‘I’ve just been talking to some men in the town about the condition of affairs in Mexico. They agree with the view that I have formed, that things there will have to get worse before they get better.’ Of course nobody in the town cared in the least little bit what his views about Mexico were or whether he had any.”

The Mappined Life” — Saki (H. H. Munro), published posthumously in 1919
posted by Nerd of the North at 10:25 AM on March 2 [29 favorites]

I’ll echo sallybrown’s comments 100%. The more I focus on city/county-level stuff, the less I care about politics generally and the partisan variety in particular. And in all candor I was very much one of the folks described in the article for a long time.
posted by jquinby at 10:25 AM on March 2 [5 favorites]
If you take two people A and B who are equally passionate about politics, and A is more social than B generally, then you’d expect to see A doing more social political activism than B. If you replace A and B with demographic groups, same thing.

So I’m not really sure what to make of this call-out. Social isolation among white men is a well-known problem, with unclear underlying causes. The article seems to be shaming them for something that is as much due to social isolation as to whatever their political opinions might be. Maybe more dots were connected in the article and I missed them.
posted by bright flowers at 10:27 AM on March 2 [5 favorites]

The sports comparison is also apt because of the way these debates can repel people who aren’t hobbyists. I’ve sat around friends debating the scoring percentages of various basketball players (or whatever) and my eyes glaze over in 3 seconds. I can see the same thing happening on a couple of my buddies’ faces when people start fighting about the merits of a very liberal politician versus a very very liberal one. It’s no way to engage low-interest or low-information voters.
posted by sallybrown at 10:31 AM on March 2 [9 favorites]
I have some ideas that aren’t yet fully formed that he sparked, about how this political hobbyist class formed – how they (we?) got the hell out of the suburbs, got educated and became able to live/work in basically any big city. Now they (we?) are rootless, which was encouraged by class culture, and have no idea how to put down roots and become members of the communities they (we.) live in.

You make a very powerful point when you highlight connection to place (or lack thereof) and neolocalism. The institutions and expectations of professional life among the college-educated, especially if they grew up in relatively privileged backgrounds, are all about making your own way, breaking ties with people who don’t/can’t help you, and making ties with people who can. That often means no investment in place of origin, and very selective investment in place of residence. This is one of the reasons that a core tenet of my personal community-focused practice is around creating meaningful connections between people, places, and the other people who share those places.
posted by Miko at 10:33 AM on March 2 [32 favorites]

As a college educated white guy who did basically nothing to oppose Trump in 2016, I deserved that shame, and social isolation is no excuse. I think this article is quite good, and I hope it pushes at least a few more of my cohort to stand up and do something, anything.
posted by Tsuga at 10:35 AM on March 2 [22 favorites]
(I mean, to be fair to myself, in the 2016 megathreads I made some very pointed favorites of comments.)
posted by Tsuga at 10:39 AM on March 2 [44 favorites]
Likewise, those who were college-educated reported that they spend more time on politics than other Americans do—but less than 2 percent of that time involves volunteering in political organizations. The rest is spent mostly on news consumption (41 percent of the time), discussion and debate (26 percent), and contemplating politics alone (21 percent). Ten percent of the time is unclassifiable….

This is why I stopped following the news so closely, because this was me — informed, but no change in action.

sallybrown: I find that the more time I spend volunteering, the less interested I am in arguing about politics. I think it’s because for me, arguing about politics is a way of (badly) managing anxiety caused by politics, while volunteering in my community always shows me how many other people care (even if they care differently to me) and want to get involved, which eases my anxiety.

Thank you for your involvement and community support! I strive to do more, and make my anger drive action, not more online activity posting news and preaching to the choir.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:51 AM on March 2 [8 favorites]

If you want to go beyond the merely performative, GO REGISTER VOTERS.

Print the forms, stuff them in envelopes, carry them with you, and ask The Question: Are you registered to vote? As I’ve said before on this site, this simple act CRUSHES DESPAIR. The sacred fire of liberty is kindled with a single, tiny spark. You can bring the fire to your community!

YOU BE THE SPARK! GO REGISTER VOTERS!

Many of the people you ask will be registered. This is a good thing! It allows you to start the conversation with them, and to explain the math. In my “red” state, for example, if 20% of the Democrats register a couple of people each–and isn’t it usually 20% or so that does 90% of the heavy lifting?–we’ll have a lead in registrations. If the Independents so the same, we’ll have a commanding lead. Above all, it will tell that person, that they are not alone (see? crushing despair!) and remind them that we are the majority. Even in so-called red states, progressive initiatives are more popular than their opposition. And if you’ve looked at voter registration numbers, you know that there are a lot of people out there who don’t vote because nobody has signed them up.

Remember always that THIS IS OUR TIME. Progressive politics has never, ever been more popular, as millions of people awaken to what the stakes of the argument are, and the accessibility of the solution: voting.

There’s a lot you can do in the way of organizing this effort, but this is a simple way to start to act that anyone can do. Let me say it once more: this is OUR TIME. Go with a full heart, and find your people. I can PROMISE that they are out there, their souls thirsting for a connection with like-minded individuals, people who want the world to be a better place for everyone. I guarantee you will be shocked by how many people like yourself you discover.

Again: YOU BE THE SPARK! GO REGISTER VOTERS!
posted by ivanthenotsoterrible at 11:04 AM on March 2 [28 favorites]

Why is the lack of engagement a bad thing? The argument assumes that if white college educated folks would just get up off of their asses, they’d suddenly work to make the world a better place. Well, why? Which hits home harder for white college educated folks – access to voting or keeping property taxes low? What has happened traditionally when affluent whites held more political power?

Even on an abstract level, why should more engagement lead to better outcomes? If you’ve ever followed political discussions, you know there many ideas about How Things Should Be. Many of those ideas are terrible. Why would throwing more people in the mix make things better?
posted by factory123 at 11:07 AM on March 2 [6 favorites]

One of the things I’ve always found the most mystifying about educated, middle-class culture is the way that “being informed” about politics/current events is seen as a virtue all on its own, completely divorced from action. I’ve had friends tell me they wish they could take the CNN/NY Times/etc app off their phones, and when I say “well, why don’t you?” they look at me like I’ve suggested something downright degenerate and tell me they’d feel guilty if they weren’t well-informed.

I grew up in this class, but my dad is a lifelong labor activist, and I started being involved in serious activism in my teens, and so I’ve just never had “being informed” as a personal virtue. It seems so … empty to me. And I think it’s one of the things that has given rise to this political hobbyist phenomenon. Both are more about the personal enrichment of the person involved than about making things better for one’s community/country/world. They’re both rooted in deeply individualistic values, which is probably why they are both so pervasive in the US.

Oh, and as someone who’s been an activist my entire adult life, both professionally and in my community, I find hobbyists really hard to know how to deal with. Because OTOH, the professionalization of politics is also a problem, and one of the important things about democracy is that it should be something a broad swath of people have passionate interest in and opinions about. But if you’re following it like professional sports, the knowledge you have is going to be really incomplete, and filtered through pundits, all of whom have their own agendas and biases. Basically, if you’ve never even knocked on doors, you don’t know how political campaigns should be run.

As always: go knock on some doors.
posted by lunasol at 11:10 AM on March 2 [28 favorites]

Which reminds me, I’ve been wondering if there is interest among NYC Mefites in doing some GOTV/voter-registration letter-writing parties this spring/early summer. I have access to a decent-sized communal space in my building (close to a subway) which I’ve already used once with a different group for that purpose, and it worked fine. It’s supposed to be accessible (although I always feel I should wait for disabled people to try it out and tell me whether that’s actually true). Is there?
posted by praemunire at 11:10 AM on March 2 [10 favorites]
Damn, I definitely know a lot of these people! 10 years ago I was in college and I wanted to get involved in some political stuff (specifically, to get Michelle Bachmann out of office). I went to a local Democratic party meeting and the vibe was very hierarchical and working within the system. There wasn’t any sense that there was anything I might contribute to my local party, or be a part of.

After college I joined some various organizations, and there are 2 that I have stuck with. Friends and colleagues used to consider my organization work a sort of odd hobby. Since 2016, they consider it a noble hobby. Either way, they do not join me unless I ask over and over again, and when they do, it is a one-time thing. But when we hang out, they want to talk about politics in a very disconnected, my-team-vs-their-team way. I hate talking about politics. I like talking about what the labor movement is up to in Minnesota (like this! Did We Just Witness the First Union-Authorized Climate Strike in the United States? I was there as a marshal!)

Sometimes people ask what I like about MN350 that I spend so much time volunteering, and my answer is always the same: the people I work with at this org are all about power. Building power. Wielding power. Breaking up the power of industries & politicians that want to kill us or let us die. It can be a little awkward to talk about because it feels uncouth to talk about how power is the most important thing and we have to get it.

But, it’s a million times better than reading someone’s weird bullshit opinion on twitter (which unfortunately I still do way too much of).
posted by Emmy Rae at 11:10 AM on March 2 [17 favorites]

The political test of our era is neatly summed up in Ryan Grim’s WE GOT PEOPLE “what matters more in American politics, money or people? Is it possible to reverse the trend of buying elections via mass engagement of of the politically uninvolved?”

Also, some of the most active and radicalized people are the downwardly mobile former professional class or thier children, linking them up to communal struggle and existing movements is necessary to prevent hobbyism from reinforcing the status quo via inaction.
posted by The Whelk at 11:12 AM on March 2 [2 favorites]

(Also it’s vitally important we get people from outside the Georgetown Ivy Poli-Sci Nepotism Merry Go Round that is modern politics.)
posted by The Whelk at 11:16 AM on March 2 [6 favorites]
Why would throwing more people in the mix make things better?

There are a lot of progressive policies that are very popular in the United States that nonetheless are not even close to being our reality. Gun control, abortion access, workers rights, immigration justice, healthcare access, climate justice, etc.
posted by Emmy Rae at 11:16 AM on March 2 [6 favorites]

If you poll people on issues they are much, much more left wing then their elected officals think they are. Right to work expansion was shut down in Red states.
posted by The Whelk at 11:18 AM on March 2 [6 favorites]
I don’t really get the social isolation argument.

I guess you can just be out of the habit of working with others, and feel hesitant because of that. But generally speaking, political organizing is extremely easy to get involved in because there are already dozens of groups looking for volunteers. All you need to do is go to their webpage and there will probably be a HOW TO GET INVOLVED page. You don’t need pre-existing social networks to get involved.

We’re talking about people who probably have basic tech and information literacy, for the most part. It’s not a hard thing to find out how to do. If you are socially anxious or have something else holding you back, sure, it can be hard to actually do it. That’s not everyone in this demographic.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:19 AM on March 2 [4 favorites]

Even on an abstract level, why should more engagement lead to better outcomes? If you’ve ever followed political discussions, you know there many ideas about How Things Should Be. Many of those ideas are terrible. Why would throwing more people in the mix make things better?

Fun exercise: consider how little this sentiment needs to be modified to serve as a justification for voter disenfranchisement.
posted by invitapriore at 11:23 AM on March 2 [6 favorites]

Yeah, and honestly, I don’t buy the social isolation argument, based on the number of these guys who have cornered me at parties. The number of their wives and girlfriends who have apologized for them. The number who tried to lecture me about politics on dates, for crissake. Those guys were not socially isolated!
posted by lunasol at 11:24 AM on March 2 [15 favorites]
Fun exercise: consider how little this sentiment needs to be modified to serve as a justification for voter disenfranchisement.

Very little, which is why lunasol only applied it to only “white college educated folks”, which are currently the most powerful group in the US, and not the general population. The entrenched group most assuredly has different methods of engagement and different considerations of the value of their engagement than the currently disenfranchised.
posted by The_Vegetables at 11:27 AM on March 2 [4 favorites]

I don’t buy the social isolation argument…

I’m sure a lot of them feel isolated or lonely or are sensing some form of anomie. Just because someone goes to a party doesn’t mean they’re not feeling isolated. I wonder how many of them are members of a sports team, or coach/mentor a group of kids or are members of a social org like Elks, Rotary, Free Masons, Church or Satan etc, or go to church or have several best friend they could call in an emergency.

Strange to deny someone’s loneliness because they try speaking with you inartfully or are bad at picking up on social cues. Self reported feelings of isolation and emotional intelligence are two separate variables. Even jerks can be lonely.
posted by Telf at 11:29 AM on March 2 [1 favorite]

Why is the lack of engagement a bad thing? The argument assumes that if white college educated folks would just get up off of their asses, they’d suddenly work to make the world a better place. Well, why? Which hits home harder for white college educated folks – access to voting or keeping property taxes low? What has happened traditionally when affluent whites held more political power?

My take is that the essay is written to address a very specific group of people that the writer fully expects to hold certain like-minded values. The premise of power and white hobbyists hardly makes sense otherwise, given that wealthy whites are by far the best served and/or most able to wield power in our current system. If that’s an indication of hobbyists, then the would-be pros out there amassing power are somehow still unable to compete despite their far greater efforts.

The essay is pitched to inspire and/or shame the left leaning readers of The Atlantic to get more involved. I’m actually not sure myself whether I’d want them to “take power” so much as support people like Matias, who aren’t yet more wealthy white males of the usual background, to further their political power to expand and diversify the number of voices making decisions for all of us, but that still takes some greater investment than just talking about it. It’s hard not to imagine fewer “educated” white men seeking power would be to everyone’s advantage at this point in US history.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:36 AM on March 2 [3 favorites]

Is there anything really new in this piece? His arguments seem as old as time. Most people don’t care about potholes until there’s one on their street.
White suburbanites care about zoning issues; and noise ordinances; school board levies and local crime — those things are beyond hobby level engagement, but don’t rise to the types of activism that is necessary in life or death marginalized communities.
Maybe it’s the two party system that’s ruining american politics. The marginalized populations, and their eager activists have a low signal to noise ratio, especially in the democratic party where they all get lumped together and the infighting over who’s issue should take center stage will never compete with the right wing lock step status quo.

Hersh is selling a book, and that’s what this article read to me. Painting broad strokes about the flavor of the month month for what’s “ruining american politics”. He teaches politics to (likely) white kids who are about to be college educated, and never once mentions whether the education he is giving is even the least bit valuable. He maybe just cranks out a few hundred hobbyists himself each spring.
posted by OHenryPacey at 11:45 AM on March 2

The author was on an episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain that I quite liked. Looking forward to reading this article.
posted by bread-eater at 11:45 AM on March 2
Fun exercise: consider how little this sentiment needs to be modified to serve as a justification for voter disenfranchisement.

I mean, sure. You can catastrophize any argument you want. Of course, I can also say that the logic underlying Hersh’s essay is just a step away from abolishing all representative governments and therefore leads to anarchy. And you don’t want anarchy, do you? Well, maybe you do. If so, good for you!

The turn of college educated whites to liberalism isn’t universal and is a recent phenomenon. Back when they considered themselves “stewards of their community,” that demographic was happily white flighting and Jim Crowing. I’m not so sure that the fundamentals have changed. I agree with gusottertrout that the essay is primarily intended “to inspire and/or shame the left leaning readers of The Atlantic to get more involved“. “Political hobbyist” is a gussied up way of saying “fucking dilettante.”
posted by factory123 at 11:50 AM on March 2 [2 favorites]

Political hobbyists are ruining politics

I think it’s the political professionals who are doing the most harm. Everyone else is just an amateur in comparison.
posted by JackFlash at 11:56 AM on March 2 [8 favorites]

Strange to deny someone’s loneliness because they try speaking with you inartfully or are bad at picking up on social cues. Self reported feelings of isolation and emotional intelligence are two separate variables. Even jerks can be lonely.

I suspect that is what is happening is that these guys do not have the social skills to notice that they are lonely, conceptualize this as a problem they can solve, and show up to do the work of building connections and social networks that aren’t necessarily work-connected. I’m not trying to be flip or dismissive–these are social skills which are hugely important and men are generally not taught how to use them or valued in doing so, and straight men in particular tend to rely on women’s work to have any access to social networks at all.

But yeah. These guys–it’s not that the access to knowledge or the tools to build this kind of social networking aren’t there. It’s that the self-recognition that this would be a good thing to do and the will to practice doing something you are bad at and not used to having to do is difficult, and that is lacking. *shrugs*

I have been banging a “get involved at your local level” drum here for years. I could stand to do more than I do, for sure, but I canvas for candidates I care about and I do a fair bit of talking about the local races to my friends and family, and I try very hard to focus on the places where my vote has the most impact: downballot. I keep seeing ads for the local DA primary race (having voted last week) and using that as a reason to talk about the downballot races. I thank my poll workers, and if I wasn’t trying to graduate I would have followed through on that training to be one of them.

There’s a certain Protestant Christian ethic in this country that holds that your personal ethical purity is more important than your actions, and that being “well-informed” helps you strive for the sort of Perfection that leaves you, personally, without sin. With all due compassion, fuck that. We do better to strive imperfectly to do good in our communities and produce actions that make the world better. We do better to try, fail, and try again than to strive for pure inner perfection of opinion, understanding, and belief.

Every time.
posted by sciatrix at 11:57 AM on March 2 [17 favorites]

I wonder how many of them are members of a sports team, or coach/mentor a group of kids or are members of a social org like Elks, Rotary, Free Masons, Church or Satan etc, or go to church or have several best friend they could call in an emergency.

Well, I think it’s kind of reductive to chalk it up to social isolation. My friend who immediately came to mind is extremely well socially connected – not a guy whose wife has friends and those are his default friends, but a guy who is a musician, plays in several bands and at the farmer’s market, runs and attends festivals, travels a lot, etc. And he tends to run kind of an ongoing political “salon” online that would fit the description “political hobby.” He would advocate that he’s doing a lot of the work of converting opinions, and he has had some success wearing people down on liberatarianism, gun rights, etc . BUt still the ratio of talk/action is pretty high up there.

The analogy of sports talk is so right on for this aspect too. Would we say everyone who engages in sports talk is socially isolated because of that? Definitely not. In fact for many it’s a form of connection, in fact. IT’s absolutely true that for some people it’s a satisfying intellectual exercise to make observations, read opinion, and try to shape it – moving ideas around, engaging in rhetoric. It can be a way to be social. I really wouldn’t want to reduce it to the stereotype of the basement-dwelling, sublimating, lonely101st Fighting Keyboardists because I don’t think that’s really what’s going on here or what the article is about.
posted by Miko at 11:58 AM on March 2 [6 favorites]

The author kind of assumes that these urban professional classes should commit to space whereas the problem is that the very concept of space, territory, and land gets run through a hash function.

So the problem isn’t that the privileged professional, knowledge, creative, managerial classes aren’t “really doing politics” (false dichotomy), but rather that this is class conflict. The solution is to reconfigure class strata, not tell the bourgeois to please give a hand building local communities more, which echos a fruitless thing that happened in communist history.
posted by polymodus at 12:00 PM on March 2 [2 favorites]

Is there anything really new in this piece? His arguments seem as old as time

The concern doesn’t seem to be new in itself, but there’s a legitimate effect of volume, as there are more college-educated people now than ever before.
posted by Miko at 12:01 PM on March 2 [1 favorite]

> Is there anything really new in this piece? His arguments seem as old as time.

Has the issue described been solved yet?
posted by at by at 12:05 PM on March 2 [3 favorites]

The turn of college educated whites to liberalism isn’t universal and is a recent phenomenon.

But in the bit I quoted, you explicitly abstracted from just educated white people to the general case, which is what I was responding to.
posted by invitapriore at 12:07 PM on March 2

I think it’s the political professionals who are doing the most harm. Everyone else is just an amateur in comparison.

I’m one of those professionals. In my career, I’ve helped elect Obama, as well as several other progressive people I’m really proud to have supported. I’ve worked on projects that found innovative ways to get more people to register and vote. I worked on the campaign to stop Shell from drilling in the Alaskan Arctic, as well as the campaign to essentially close the West Coast of the US to coal exports. You haven’t heard of me, I’m not a pundit, I don’t tweet about politics, I don’t aspire to be a big known name or face. I’m lucky that I stumbled into this career at a young age and have been able to do some good things. I’ve also worked on advocacy and electoral campaigns that failed, and learned from those failures.

I mean, I guess if you think those things constitute “harm” then yes, I have done a lot of harm. I’m guessing that what you really meant was the type of people who rake in big bucks consulting to the DNC, or go on CNN as pundits. That’s a very small slice of the world of “political professionals” and if you don’t know that, you perfectly illustrated my earlier point about how little political hobbyists understand about politics relative to their confidence in their opinions.
posted by lunasol at 12:28 PM on March 2 [21 favorites]

I don’t think social isolation is the entirety or even the majority of the argument he’s making, or that the issue is just white men (although isolated white men are part of it). I think he’s talking about upper middle PMC types, many of whom are women. These are politicized people, they probably have a “I’m with her2016” bumper stickers on their cars, and they spend a lot of time on politics (reading/watching/tweeting/posting) but almost no time engaging in the kind of politics that multiply your force (organizing/volunteering/registering/participating). If you’re going to spend time engaging in politics, you should do so in a way that multiplies your political power.
posted by youthenrage at 12:37 PM on March 2 [2 favorites]
sciatrix: There’s a certain Protestant Christian ethic in this country that holds that your personal ethical purity is more important than your actions, and that being “well-informed” helps you strive for the sort of Perfection that leaves you, personally, without sin.

Interesting! As a political dilettante who grew up as a Protestant, I’ll add that the church I grew up in had an even narrower emphasis on the importance of correct belief, above ethical purity and well above virtuous action. Sins could be forgiven; it was correct theology which determined whether you were going to heaven or not.
posted by clawsoon at 12:46 PM on March 2 [2 favorites]

I brought up the social isolation angle because the author was making a statistical argument: college-educated white men don’t do as much social political activism, so they must be less serious about their politics. I was proposing an alternative possibility, that college-educated white men don’t do as much social political activism because they don’t do much as much socializing at all. You can rerun the argument modifying any of “college-educated”, “white” or “men” though I don’t know how true the premise of “they are less social” holds for all variations. As far as I know the author did not address this possibility in the article.

Furthermore if my alternative is correct then it’s not really fair to shame people for weak political beliefs if the problem really is social isolation, which may be for reasons outside their immediate control or understanding.
posted by bright flowers at 12:49 PM on March 2 [1 favorite]

yeah, maybe college-educated white men are lonely.

or maybe college-educated white men are, by and large, taught an intellectual framework that encourages “high decoupling” and prefer academic and philosophical discussions with other like themselves as an intellectual contact sport, and the best way to maintain that sort of disinterested decoupling ivory tower pursuit is to avoid actual political, social activism?

because the instant one starts interacting with the poors and the queers and the orientals and the womens and the blacks and the browns and suddenly find out just how little we like being imaginary footballs to score points with for those college-educated white men, some of whom we went to school with, some of whom we slept with, some of whom we are talking with now, that’s when the fundamental moral question appears: do you just talk? or do you act?

it’s easier to just debate, be a dilettante. easier to be ‘lonely’, i guess, and never actually have your ideas challenged by real life.
posted by anem0ne at 1:08 PM on March 2 [22 favorites]

Is the assertion that white college-educated men are less socially active than groups that volunteer at a higher rate based on anything—statistics or anything else? If not, it seems like a derail.
posted by sallybrown at 1:14 PM on March 2 [1 favorite]
Ok, Mefites in NYC area who might be interested in doing some group letter writing WITH SNACKS please MeMail me.
posted by praemunire at 1:14 PM on March 2 [4 favorites]
Hmm yeah this piece would be a lot more useful and honest without the trollish headline. It would be one thing to say “political hobbyists aren’t helping politics,” but it’s a completely different matter to say “political hobbyists are ruining politics.” Yes, political hobbyists may be wasting opportunities and possibly even their time, but this piece did not present any evidence that they are ruining anything.
posted by panama joe at 1:16 PM on March 2 [2 favorites]
How about just taking our money, and letting us spend our time the way we want?
posted by No Robots at 1:23 PM on March 2 [1 favorite]
it’s not really fair to shame people for weak political beliefs if the problem really is social isolation

But the author is not shaming people for weak political beliefs. In the hidden brain episode I listen to, which someone links to above, he makes the point that the overwhelming majority of political hobbyists online tend to be white men with very strong political beliefs about which they are willing to argue all day and all night. In contrast, the author mentioned in that podcast, if you go look at newer US political organizations, such as indivisible, the majority of the people doing the work of political organizing are women. Often people of color, both male and female, are not busy online making political arguments because they are doing actual organizing. I’m not claiming the majority are. But I think the authors points are really interesting. There are a number of people with passionate beliefs here on MetaFilter but I suspect that most of them are like me and are not actively involved in political organizing or political work.

So I don’t think loudly opinionated online men (or women) get a pass For not being involved in actual political organizing if they claim to care about politics but are actually just fans. A buddy of mine used to drive me crazy because he would lecture me about the importance of being completely up-to-date on news events. A super lefty guy Who devoted hours every day to reading the news and who had once been politically engaged outside of the country but really wasn’t doing anything in the US. Now he’s involved in a couple of different political organizations and he’s a much more engaging friend as a result.

I am not saying people don’t get to be political hobbyists. That’s their choice. That’s my choice at the moment. But it’s not OK to pretend that arguing with people on Twitter or MetaFilter or Facebook or any other online place or even over the dinner table is the same thing as doing the political work necessary to make progress toward whatever political goal is important to you.

My therapist used to tell me that worry is not a strategy. In that same way, debate or discussion is not politically productive. At least not as it is practiced in most online spaces today. It does not surprise me that most of the people doing that online are white men while most of the people doing actual political work are not.

To all the people here on MetaFilter who have been doing actual political work on behalf of progressive causes, thank you from the bottom of my heart. There are reasons why I feel unable to do that work at this time. But at least I am not pretending that my political comments here or elsewhere is a form of organizing. Um, nope. (Sorry about the typos)
posted by Bella Donna at 1:24 PM on March 2 [18 favorites]

What I’m trying to say, badly, is that this article and things that I’ve read related to it resonated with me because I realized that I was confused. There was a way in which participating in the mega threads made me feel as though I was somehow involved in improving the political situation in the United States. When actually, it was a form of self soothing.

I’m not saying that’s true for everyone involved in them. And I loved the mega threads and subsequent US political threads. I am saying that to my surprise, I recognized myself in that article and realized that I was in denial that I was being a fan rather than an actual activist or political worker of any sort. And that’s OK. We get to choose. But in order to actually choose, we need to understand the choice we are making. This article and the podcast, which I highly recommend, helped me understand something Important to me about my own behavior.

TL;DR: If you want to be a politics hobbyist, go for it. If you want to change the political situation, that’s a shitty strategy. Then you need to act. Opinionating won’t get the job done.
posted by Bella Donna at 1:32 PM on March 2 [11 favorites]

One of the things I’ve always found the most mystifying about educated, middle-class culture is the way that “being informed” about politics/current events is seen as a virtue all on its own, completely divorced from action.

it seems to be very common with a particular set, this strange focus on an intent being the virtue, rather than the impact being the virtue.

to be well-informed is great, but it’s worthless if it’s not applied to better our condition.
to have free speech is great, but it’s worthless if it’s used to harass and misinform.
to argue for equality is great, but it’s worthless if they drop/ignore marginalized groups for expediency.
to say you’re an ally is great, but it’s worthless if you’re snide and talk over the groups you’re an ally to.

political hobbyists want credit for their intents, their beliefs, without doing any of the work that would get them credit. thus voltaire’s quote, so oft posted, about defending to the death the right to say [x]; thus the silenced all their life wailing when someone uses their free speech to call this particular set out on their bigotry.

it’s very white liberal, and a very similar wounded pride appears when they’re called on it.

just another way of saying what sciatrix points out:
There’s a certain Protestant Christian ethic in this country that holds that your personal ethical purity is more important than your actions, and that being “well-informed” helps you strive for the sort of Perfection that leaves you, personally, without sin.

if you think the right thoughts you are saved, your intent is pure.

who cares what your actions are? by grace alone you are saved, not by works.
posted by anem0ne at 1:41 PM on March 2 [16 favorites]

But generally speaking, political organizing is extremely easy to get involved in because there are already dozens of groups looking for volunteers.

Political organizing is easy to participate in, if you enjoy social interaction with strangers. If you don’t, or it causes you distress, it’s much harder to get involved.

Newbie activists these days are pushed at texting and phone calls and holding signs at rallies and handing out pamphlets or voter reg forms in public. They’re encouraged to write letters or postcards to strangers.

Note: they are not encouraged to stuff envelopes or shop for supplies or fold pamphlets or read candidate statements and write analyses of them. They’re pushed at social activities, because social is easy for most people and computers have automated a whole lot of the former secretarial functions.

I’m aware that reblogging political articles on Tumblr and participating in the former megathreads is not political activism. Most of the currently available forms of activism make my skin crawl, and life is difficult enough under the current regime without activism that enhances my neuroses and erodes my limited mental health.

(However, I’m aware I’m not “political active.” My husband watches leftist vids on YouTube and occasionally sends memes to a texting group, and I’m not sure he realizes that no amount of in-home ranting counts as activism.)
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 1:43 PM on March 2 [9 favorites]

political hobbyists want credit for their intents, their beliefs, without doing any of the work that would get them credit.

This, a million times this.
posted by Bella Donna at 1:44 PM on March 2 [3 favorites]

Most of the currently available forms of activism make my skin crawl, and life is difficult enough under the current regime without activism that enhances my neuroses and erodes my limited mental health.

Well said.

I think it’s true, as others have said, that Hersh isn’t really directing his critique to the socially isolated (I assume that’s because like so many, he doesn’t really consider us worth considering at all). Which may be perfectly fine for his purposes, but it does lead to some very lopsided conversations about what “good” activism looks like.
posted by Not A Thing at 1:48 PM on March 2 [2 favorites]

I’ve usually pushed newbie socially adverse activists into spreadsheet work – you usually have to ask for it but so many things live and die by data entry.
posted by The Whelk at 1:56 PM on March 2 [10 favorites]
Fundamentally, though, politics is about swaying the opinions of large aggregates of people. If you aren’t willing to go out and interact with people in any way, there really isn’t very much that is left for you to do–even the most obvious support roles are about, well, supporting the people who are going out and swaying etc. (On the same tack, though, I tend to think that going out and normalizing political engagement–calling congresspeople, talking downballot candidates, reminding folks that elections are coming, encouraging people to vote, etc. is a form of activism. Activism isn’t always flashy and exhausting. Sometimes it’s little things.)

That does not mean that people who are not willing and able to do some level of social interactions are not good people or should be sneered at or whatever, just that perhaps their own forms of activism and putting good things out into the world should be driven at a cause that is not specifically politics. To each according to their own skills and aptitudes. There are other worthy ways to put good into the world, too.
posted by sciatrix at 1:58 PM on March 2 [8 favorites]

I mean, if you’re able and not willing, that’s one thing. If you’re not able, that’s another. I’m not currently able to canvass, I’m simply not willing to text. In terms of social isolation, I think it’s worth distinguishing between the two circumstances.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 2:01 PM on March 2
Fundamentally, though, politics is about swaying the opinions of large aggregates of people.

I think the author argues that fundamentally, politics is about accruing power and that does not necessarily require large aggregates of people. The podcast is great. It talks about this Ukrainian guy who built up political power over time as part of a process of trying to make sure that people in his community became citizens.

He also talked about how hard it was for the young Democrats at Tufts to get volunteers to go with them to canvas in New Hampshire. But later in the semester, when a young Democrats asked if anyone wanted to go to New Hampshire to take selfies with Mayor Pete, they couldn’t find enough cars to take all the interested students.

I am trying to figure out how this applies to Sweden. Meaning, what does it mean to accrue actual political power in particular ways for particular communities. The bigoted party with Nazi leanings is not the most popular party yet but it’s definitely the most scary party. Its base of support is growing, and recently one of its officials declared that journalists should be fined or fired for disseminating “fake news.” I know where this leads but I don’t know what effective political action in response to that would look like. If anyone else does, by all means PM me.
posted by Bella Donna at 2:19 PM on March 2 [2 favorites]

Good point, The Whelk! I had to press pretty forcefully to get to do data stuff rather than knock on doors when I helped with a campaign—I’m not great at stranger stuff plus it’s hard for me to get around—but it turned out that I really helped the campaign, made some friends, and improved my data skillz. Would recommend.
posted by ferret branca at 2:42 PM on March 2 [2 favorites]
I am now less politically informed and more politically active than I ever was before the Trump era. I’ve had to dial back my consumption of political news and commentary for my own protection, because if I pay too much attention to current events I start to lose myself in rage and loathing. Instead I send postcards and did phone banking and cooked for homeless meals. It’s a frail barque on a stormy ocean some days.
posted by bq at 2:50 PM on March 2 [6 favorites]
If you aren’t willing to go out and interact with people in any way, there really isn’t very much that is left for you to do

1) I’d love to do spreadsheets. I volunteered for spreadsheets, editing, and doc conversion. Nobody called me about those.

2) I get that “interact with strangers” is a key part of political activism – I just don’t want to start with that. The problem isn’t that activism requires social activity; it’s that that’s treated as the intro material.

I can do random social. I have to do it at work. I can talk to strangers, even be polite and friendly and maybe persuasive. I just have to shut off all the parts of my brain that pay attention to my mood, comfort levels, and the portions of ethics that start with “that which is hateful to you, do not inflict upon others.”

Of course, after a few encounters in that frame of mind, I’ve lost all sense of why I was interested in these people’s politics in the first place. They wind up feeling like the same high-pressure persuasion tactics that I abhor in businesses: “Just convince everyone to DO THIS and we will have a better world tomorrow!”

I’m aware this isn’t the kind of activism that the article is promoting. But it takes it for granted that “meet people with shared political interests” is the easy part, that “get to know your neighbors” is a simple task, that “work together to fix local problems” includes obvious steps.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 2:51 PM on March 2 [7 favorites]

Three thoughts, only tangentially related to one another:

1) Increased polarization and self-sorting means that, for more and more people, they hold views which are very mainstream locally to them, but are controversial and closely divided, nationally.

2) The essay seems to skip by the role of donations, which we all know is huge in modern politics. Is there a cause or campaign in the country that wouldn’t rather get a $250 check than a few hours of volunteer labor?

3) Many people genuinely care about issues which simply aren’t very salient locally – and there’s nothing wrong with that. If what keeps you up at night isn’t potholes, but the plight of the Uighurs, then what are you meant to do?
posted by kickingtheground at 3:33 PM on March 2 [4 favorites]

no amount of in-home ranting counts as activism

I’ve been unemployed. I’ve been tremendously stressed and annoyed by recent politics in my world. I’m up to HERE (gestures to a place above my head) with reading and hearing people’s political rants on social media and in private chitchat.

Several months ago I started volunteering at my Alderman’s (very local government) office. I help people get their parking stickers and collect complaints and register burned-out streetlights and potholes into a computer system for the city to attend to. I’ve done some communications consulting there about community organizing/events and how it is messaged and broadcast/narrowcast.

I cannot stop hearing people rant politically. And I’m in such a Deep Blue area in a Blue state that there’s not much I can do about our National nightmares. But helping people get their Handicap Parking signs put up, and expediting trash removal and road repairs and helping a little old ESL lady proofread her tax exemption form are a few tangible things I can do to make something better.

Guess I’m doing some self back-patting here, but my point is: doing something small in Making Things Less Shitty is far more fulfilling for my own head than posting links on Facebook. It’s as much self-care as it is care for the Greater Good.
posted by SoberHighland at 3:37 PM on March 2 [19 favorites]

Added Plus: volunteering in such a way is like living a few hours a week in a Real Life episode of Barney Miller. You never know what the next call is gonna be. You never know who is gonna walk in the door. Plus, it’s interesting to see how the back end works.
posted by SoberHighland at 3:41 PM on March 2 [4 favorites]
sallybrown: Is the assertion that white college-educated men are less socially active than groups that volunteer at a higher rate based on anything—statistics or anything else? If not, it seems like a derail.

You’re right to challenge me for sources but I don’t really want to get into a discussion about whether for example women or men are more socially active by some standard, so instead I’ll just say that I think the author’s argument would have been stronger if they had excluded social activity rates as a factor, and leave it at that.
posted by bright flowers at 3:50 PM on March 2

Why is the lack of engagement a bad thing? The argument assumes that if white college educated folks would just get up off of their asses, they’d suddenly work to make the world a better place.

This isn’t about “engagement” or the lack of it as such. This is about people who say “oh, yeah, I’m totally engaged” but their “engagement” consists of nothing more than “I retweeted someone who totally dissed Trump and I signed a petition”.

It’s not so much “be more engaged”, it’s more like “don’t say you are engaged when you ain’t.”
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:00 PM on March 2 [5 favorites]

I think the author’s argument would have been stronger if they had excluded social activity rates as a factor, and leave it at that.

Well, I’m sorry the author’s argument didn’t deal with your particular bikeshed concern in a particularly exacting way, so maybe we can just do away with this “social isolation” derail?

I think the author’s argument would have been helped if they had done research that took into account various axes of marginalization but if wishes were horses…
posted by anem0ne at 4:07 PM on March 2 [7 favorites]

worry is not a strategy

Thank you for that idea. I needed to hear it.
posted by fuzz at 4:26 PM on March 2 [3 favorites]

Does knocking on doors convince more people to change their mind than posting on Facebook does? Is there any data on that?
posted by clawsoon at 4:32 PM on March 2
It’s not so much “be more engaged”, it’s more like “don’t say you are engaged when you ain’t.”

I think this point is lost among people who are engaged and actually vote when so much of the work described is getting other people to vote and when 65% at best vote in presidential elections and the number falls to like 20-40% in local elections, depending on the state.

If you merely vote you are as or more engaged than most people.
posted by The_Vegetables at 4:34 PM on March 2 [1 favorite]

(If the results of recent election meddling in the U.S. and Brazil are anything to go by, spreading stuff on Facebook is, in fact, political action. But I don’t know a lot about this, and I assume that the rest of you know more about this than I do.)
posted by clawsoon at 4:37 PM on March 2
anem0ne: Yeah I agree. I approached it like the author was making a tight scientific argument but it was actually more of a general call-to-action. Maybe the book itself is more rigorous about it. I’m glad people are getting something out of it either way.
posted by bright flowers at 4:42 PM on March 2
Old joke. She says, “I let my husband worry about the important things – who should be President, whether interest rates need to be cut, international relations and so on. I worry about the little things – where we live, what car we drive, the children, our jobs.”

The bloviating older male, who you put in his armchair in the corner, so he doesn’t frighten the unsuspecting, has been with us a long time. He is the result of a mix of snobbery, arrogance and laziness.

Being politically involved and organising politically is work but also fun.
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 5:03 PM on March 2

Pod Save This Trap House
posted by snuffleupagus at 6:09 PM on March 2
Newbie activists these days are … encouraged to write letters or postcards to strangers.

… They’re pushed at social activities

Interesting to see writing postcards listed as a social activity. I’ve written a ton of postcards through Postcards to Voters and most of them I write alone. I wouldn’t have thought of them that way, and have been describing one of their advantages to my introvert friends as that they’re political activism but on your couch.

I do also organize social occasions where people get together and write (and notably it’s about 90-95% women doing that work) but it’s not required that you write at a postcard party.
posted by joannemerriam at 6:10 PM on March 2 [2 favorites]

Why am I not surprised that an article about the importance of political engagement has turned into a discussion about the importance of not hurting white man feelings? Seriously? Yeah, if you’re at the top of the food chain you can AFFORD to isolate yourself. Not to mention their particular isolation is largely driven by the feeling that they’re losing power. You think no black or Latinx people get social anxiety? Feel isolated? Wish they could just stay at home? Want to escape the world? And yet they’re still getting out there. The world is burning and we should feel sad for white guys who’d rather retweet memes than go and actually do something for people? Hell no.
posted by schroedinger at 6:31 PM on March 2 [10 favorites]
^^^All of this. Thank you.
posted by primalux at 6:34 PM on March 2
Why am I not surprised that an article about the importance of political engagement has turned into a discussion about the importance of not hurting white man feelings?

There’s not a (predominantly) white-male-jerk behavior you can describe on here that won’t fetch someone to tell you that it’s just because they’re Alone and Sad and Don’t Have Social Skills and Couldn’t Possibly Have Learned Them Even Though They are Fully-Grown Adults and Why are We Shaming Them. Even when, as here, we’re talking about a group that by definition is out there engaging socially all the time.
posted by praemunire at 6:47 PM on March 2 [3 favorites]

Before the 2016 election, I voted. Now? I’m a poll worker, I write postcards and sign petitions, and I call and email my representatives on the regular. There’s not much to organize (“We’re all Republicans here!,” as one voter said), but I’m doing my little bit.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:15 PM on March 2

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