Throughout my career, I’ve worked on campaigns of all shapes and sizes. In those jobs, I’ve seen one constant — how important it is to maximize every hour you get in a day. You can always raise more money. You can recruit more volunteers. Time is the one thing in an election you can’t get more of.
Eitan Hersh, a political scientist at Tufts, has written a new book — POLITICS IS FOR POWER: HOW TO MOVE BEYOND POLITICAL HOBBYISM, TAKE ACTION, AND MAKE REAL CHANGE. He sets out to examine how citizens can make a difference in our democracy, but he’s just as concerned with time as any frazzled campaign hack two weeks out from Election Day.
In his research, Hersh has identified an important and unsettling contradiction. In 2018, he asked a representative sample of Americans how much time they spend on political-related activity in the course of a typical day. Fully one-third claimed to spend at least two hours a day on politics. But of those, four out of five said they spent no time at all on actual organizing. Their political time was devoted to consumption and punditry — listening to podcasts, watching cable news, tweeting.
These people, Hersh says, are hobbyists. And for all their purported engagement, they’re not having a tangible impact on the causes they support.
Hersh has a few ideas for how that time could be better spent. Throughout the book, he surfaces counterexamples of citizen volunteers making serious investments in building real political power — a mom in Brooklyn field-testing innovative canvassing techniques, a teacher in Pennsylvania applying lessons she learned as a labor organizer to help boost turnout for Conor Lamb in the 2018 special election, a college student and a professor remaking the county Democratic Party in Davidson, North Carolina.
To his credit, Hersh puts his analysis into action, launching his own neighborhood advocacy organization. And the final 20 pages or so of this book are filled with worthy suggestions for how the rest of us can embrace the same ethos.
But as important as it is to recognize the trend Hersh identifies, there’s more going on in our current political moment. As an organizer, I’ve seen examples of growing numbers of people spending time on exactly the kind of activism that Hersh so values.
As research from Lara Putnam and Theda Skocpol shows, there’s been a meaningful surge in civic participation from progressives since Trump was elected. Increasingly, these activists are now plugging into local state parties and supporting down-ballot campaigns. And they’re drawing on relational organizing techniques — reaching out to targeted segments of their personal networks — to continue growing their movement.
Perhaps as a result, in 2018 we saw record-breaking numbers of women running for office — and winning. With a surge of small-dollar fundraising, Democratic candidates for Congress outraised their GOP counterparts by more than $300 million. And the 2018 midterm elections had the highest turnout from voters at large in more than a century.
The question progressives need to wrestle with: What makes these activists different from the political hobbyists? In general, the two groups share the same values, but one is focused on using their free time to build power, while the other is interested in talking about it. If the hobbyists could be persuaded to take up some clipboards — mobilized in support of any number of important causes — the status of American politics could look quite different in the years ahead.
I’m also not quite ready to dismiss the value of some of the social media conversations that captivate Hersh’s hobbyists (even though it’s often my job to move people toward offline action taking).
Sarah Jackson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has studied the ways that marginalized groups use Twitter to advance counter-narratives. As she points out, without Twitter, “fewer Americans would have heard the names Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Sandra Bland — black people whose deaths have become synonymous with #BlackLivesMatter activism.” Social media has given a platform to voices we otherwise might not hear, which is another form of power we shouldn’t dismiss.
But these countervailing trends don’t diminish the salience of Hersh’s insights or the strength of his recommendations. They especially don’t give progressives more hours in a day. At a moment when more Americans are interested in the details of the political process — and when many are deeply frustrated by the contents of each new push alerts — mobilizing those who say they care about our democracy but haven’t yet begun to act couldn’t feel more vital.
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