EH Eitan Hersh
AL Andrew Leigh
EH In hobbyism, one thing that happens is it’s more fun to engage in politics where we’re in our bubbles and we don’t interact with anyone we actually need to convince of anything. And if we don’t need to convince anyone of anything, then the way we make most fun of this is by having these us versus them teams. My side is great. The other side is terrible. My side is smart. The other side is stupid.
AL Good day and welcome to the Good Life, Andrew Leigh in conversation, a podcast about living a happier, healthier and more ethical life. Our society puts a lot of emphasis on smarts, but not enough on wisdom, so this podcast seeks out wise people who can share their insights on passion, grit, love and empathy. We’ll discuss everything from sport to parenting and hear the stories of some of the world’s wisest souls. If you enjoy the podcast, let your friends know, so they can share the insights.
Now, let’s dive into today’s conversation. For over 100 episodes, I’ve described this as a politics-free podcast. I’ve steered guests away from partisan issues and policy topics, the ones that occupy my job as a member of parliament. But then this new book came along that made me want to break that rule. The book’s called Politics is for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change, and it’s written by 36-year-old Eitan Hersh, an associate professor of politics at Tufts University.
It’s provocative and insightful, and I found myself discussing it in all kinds of places, most recently on a phone hook-up with climate change activists. Eitan, thanks for joining me on the Good Life podcast and for prompting me to break my no-politics rule today.
EH Thank you for having me.
AL I love this book, but I confess I didn’t love the title. I think you should have called it Why Hobbyists are Ruining Politics because really, it’s a condemnation of political hobbyists and a call to true activism and volunteering. Let’s get started. Tell us what a political hobbyist is.
EH A political hobbyist is someone who engages in politics a lot, that is they spend a lot of time thinking about politics, worrying about politics. But all the ways that they do politics are really for themselves, for their intellectual stimulation, for their emotional needs. They are the people who obsessively follow the news, maybe take a token action like signing an online petition, worry a lot, know a lot of facts, but actually, none of their time amounts to building power for the things that they care about.
AL You talk about the extraordinary amount of time some of these people are spending. You’ve got the statistic that a third of Americans are spending more than two hours a day on politics, and almost none of that seems to be volunteering.
EH That’s right. That number’s actually not shocking if you think about the amount of time Americans spend watching TV in a typical day. It’s hours. And if you add up all the time that you are reading, you’re toggling over to Facebook or Twitter, you’re listening to a podcast, you’re talking about things at your table, it’s hard to estimate these things precisely. But I think a lot of Americans are spending an obsessive amount of time on politics, just as they spend on other things like sports.
AL And you’re being deliberately provocative in calling it a hobby, right? Because I think a lot of these people would regard themselves as being politically engaged and doing their civic duty by keeping up with the twists and turns of the news.
EH Yes, I think actually both sides of the equation here, the term hobbyism and the term power. Both make people feel uncomfortable for different reasons. And the hobbyism makes people feel uncomfortable because, that’s right, if you really care deeply about the state of the world, the state of your country, of your state, then being labelled a hobbyist feels like it’s demeaning of those real feelings you have.
And so, the point of the book is to meet people where they are in that hobbyist mentality and say, are you really channelling your energy effectively? Are your values showing through in your actions or not? And if they’re not, then the book’s designed to provide some alternative ideas.
AL You’re a Red Sox fan, and you draw this lovely sports analogy about being in Fenway Park with people shouting, Yankees suck, and how that feels like a lot of the way we conduct politics. Tell us about how politics has become like sports and why that’s a problem.
EH Fenway Park is right near my house, but when the Red Sox are playing, it actually doesn’t even matter who they’re playing. Sometimes we shout Yankees suck when we’re playing Los Angeles. But certainly, whenever the Red Socks are playing the Yankees, we say Yankees suck. I find myself in a stadium like Fenway Park with thousands of other people, and everyone’s shouting this, and it’s sort of a joke. We don’t really mean it.
I don’t use the word suck in any other realm of my life other than at Fenway Park to say the Yankees suck. And I say it there, but of course, I don’t mean it. I don’t not like the players. I have family members from New York who like the Yankees. It’s a game. And I want people to think about, when is politics like that for them and when is it really something deeper? When are the stakes actually low, and that’s why they engage in something that feels more like a frivolous hobby, and when are they so high that they would just never behave that way?
And in hobbyism, one thing that happens is that it’s more fun to engage in politics where we’re in our bubbles and we don’t interact with anyone we actually need to convince of anything. And if we don’t need to convince anyone of anything, then the way we make most fun of this is by having these us versus them teams. My side is great. The other side is terrible. My side is smart. The other side is stupid.
But if you’re actually trying to build power… Again, if I try and convince someone of something, you can’t act like that and so you don’t. And that’s why I think that the hobbyism politics, the kind of things that we do online, the way that we would talk about people who we don’t actually have to interact with, just feels so different than how political organisers, politicians who are working to bridge divides, how they behave.
AL Your book’s a beautiful blend of political science research, some surveys you’ve conducted, but also, these really moving profiles of activists. And I guess my favourite is 99-year-old Naakh Vyosky, your Boston activist. Tell us about Naakh and what he does.
EH Thanks for saying that because he’s my favourite too. By the way, I just have to preface this by saying, based on what you said at the beginning of our conversation, which is that it can feel like a bummer actually for people to think about their own political engagement amounting to nothing more than a hobby. The book is not a bummer though because I think of these stories of people who are doing the alternative. There’s a big focus, and I wanted there to be a big focus, because I didn’t want the book to be a bummer, on really concrete examples of what the alternative is.
Naakh presents one of these alternatives. When I met Naakh, he was 98, and his story is this. He came to the United States from the former USSR. He was already in retirement. This is in the early 80s. He lived in this big old-age home that was kind of a low-income housing for seniors and that ended up being mostly Russian refugees, Russian immigrants to the United States.
He wasn’t particularly politically active. He was just sort of a do-gooder, like he and his wife in their retirement would drive people to the doctor’s appointments or help people fill out forms. Their English was a little bit better than other people’s, though not great. And then what happened is something got him angry about politics, and that something was very simple.
A lot of people in the US will remember this, that in the 1990s, there was this big welfare reform bill that was passed by President Clinton and the Congress. In the initial law that was passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton, immigrants, including legal immigrants, even those living in nursing homes, would not be able to get food stamps and other kind of benefits.
And so that applied to a lot of people in Naakh’s community. They were all low-income seniors, and they were all going to lose their government benefits, and Naakh just got pissed off basically, and he made speeches and he went on the radio and things like that. But he also, over the period of a year or two, he and his wife helped get citizenship for 300 of their neighbours. What that means is…
AL And this is hard. I’ve helped people with the US citizenship test. It is a really tough test.
EH That’s right. You have to learn about the Federalist Papers’ Declaration of Independence, stuff like that. These people are seniors. A lot of these are Jewish refugees whose first language was Yiddish, but they have to take it in Russian. But he and his wife, they organised a committee, and they go through the test. And basically, in the period of time when the government was going back and forth about whether they were going to amend this law or not, they got all these neighbours citizenship.
Then the law was actually amended, so it didn’t actually happen, but in the meantime, Naakh really went to bat for his community, and he’s always been going to bat for his community through the little neighbourly favours. But now, he got them organised as citizens, and then into politics. And so basically what happened is, after that, and this is sort of in the late 90s, early 2000s, he formed a committee again of people he called his lieutenants, which were all just old, retired Russian refugees.
And they would make a slate of candidates who their community should support, and they would get the vote out. And lo and behold, within a couple of elections, this precinct that was in just this old-age home had two or three times the voting turnout of all the precincts around it. And basically, everyone voted the same way, which actually triggered an investigation at one point by the US Attorneys, by the Justice Department. How is it possible that this precinct…? Is there any manipulation going on or fraud?
And it turns out, actually just by being a good person and dedicating your time to mobilising your neighbours, you can get a lot of support. And the last thing I said about this is it really translates into power. So, when Naakh and his community had questions about small things, like getting their sidewalks shovelled, or big things like immigration, politicians responded to them. He would get letters and visits and calls from the governor and the mayor because it’s such a rare thing for someone to have this kind of concentration of energy and support of people who he's built rapport for.
I have to say that, right after I finished writing the book, I actually had a copy in my hand but it hadn’t been published yet, this man Naakh, he passed away just three days shy of his 99th birthday. And so I went to his funeral, and when someone who’s 99 dies, there’s usually not that many people left among their friends and family, and there were about 50 people there from the Russian community where he lived.
But then sitting in the front row at this small funeral home was the mayor of Boston and the governor of Massachusetts, and city councillors and state representatives. And they weren’t there to get any votes or take any pictures. They were just quietly paying tribute to this guy who did something that… What I want people to see is that he did something that’s powerful and amazing, but also very tangible.
A lot of people right now, who are spending two hours a day on politics, could do what he did. He didn’t even start until he was retired. And so it’s so concrete, but I think so meaningful.
AL There must be a sense of satisfaction at having captured his achievements and his story so beautifully in your book at that moment.
EH For sure, and also just the transformation in my own mind because I went through this weird… The initial things I heard about this guy was that he controlled 1,000 votes and that he had been under investigation by the Justice Department, and I thought it was scary. I didn’t know what this was all about. It just sounded like, is this a good form of politics? And I think a lot of people, when they initially read the story, they kind of go back and forth about this too.
And I think what we realise, hopefully by the end of the book, is that actually, this isn’t a dirty form of politics or a parochial form of politics. This is politics. That’s what politics is. And actually, the above-the-fray kind of way that most of us participate in politics is not politics at all. It’s something closer to sports fandom.
AL Your book is coming out at a time when various others are documenting this interesting shift in the United States, away from the local towards the national, as Dan Hopkins’ The Increasingly United States is showing some evidence of this. And staying with Massachusetts, you have a splendid example of the Obama election in 2008 and the 2010 special Senate election. Talk us through that one.
EH In my home state here of Massachusetts, we had of course a very high turnout back in 2008 when Obama was on the ballot, the economy was in collapse. It is a very Democratic state, for listeners who don’t know, a very Democratic state, and so turnout was really high and people were energised about the Obama election, even though it wasn’t close in this state. And of course, in the US system with the Electoral College, all that matters is who wins the state, and so if someone wins the state by 30 points, that’s a real landslide.
But the people of Massachusetts were all excited, even though their vote wasn’t that important because it was such a landslide. Then, a few months later, Massachusetts becomes a really important scene in national politics, and the reason is there’s a special Senate election to fill the seat that was long held by Ted Kennedy, our long-term senator who died in office. And now, the tables have turned…
AL I learnt from your book, in 1962, when he took up his brother’s seat as his brother became president. Pretty extraordinary.
EH He has a long career.
EH Obama had been in office, and now it’s a very important election nationally because the Democrats controlled 60 votes in the Senate, which is very important in the United States Senate because that means that they can override a filibuster. And there’s a competition because the Democrats are not that exciting and there’s the wins at the back of the Republicans. There’s the Tea Party movement that came up in response to Obama, and all of a sudden, the energy is on the Right.
So, all those people who were super-jazzed about Obama, who donated, who went canvassing, they sit back. They don’t go to Town Hall meetings. They don’t vote. And in this special election when Massachusetts actually mattered, you have this steep decline in turnout, especially in Democratic areas. And this, of course, is the election where Massachusetts could play a real role. And so, what’s the story there?
I think the story is that when you’re doing politics that’s tied to the fun of it, the national drama, celebrity candidates, the ups and down of national elections, then when your candidate’s not an exciting celebrity, you sit at home because it’s just not fun. And I think that’s really the story of what happened during the Obama years.
When he was on the ballot, a lot of people voted. When he wasn’t, even though of course, for the Democrats, his legislative agenda required just that, a legislature that supported what he wanted, people just sat at home because, again, their celebrity wasn’t on the ballot. And of course, in 2016, when we have the biggest celebrity of all on the ballot on the Republican side, the stadiums are filled. Lock her up. And the Democrats, in many cases, just can’t be bothered.
AL You also talk about the way in which local activism isn’t just something progressives do, and you point out that the Right to Life movement, the movement for gun rights in the US through the NRA, were chapter-based, local organisations. And you have a really nice riff on the way in which these organisations provide services to their members, such as gun safety classes for kids provided by the NRA. Or, in the most striking example, the work that the KKK is doing with opioid addicts. Talk us a little through some of those issues.
EH Where the KKK was going around offering opioid addicts help, like do you have an addiction? It’s not your fault. We’re here to help you. And this is something that, like you mentioned, the NRA does, churches do. They provide services and build support. It’s not like the KKK just goes around and says, we’re white supremacists. Come join us. They wouldn’t get as many supporters as if they said, let me look you in the eye, and think about where you’re coming from, and are you going through something bad, and we can help you.
And obviously, the message of the book, just like Naakh does a version of this for his community, is that this is how you count votes and build support. I think that people on the Left sometimes think that they are the realm of grassroots organising, like they’re good at this. And maybe if you have a strong labour movement, you can think that, or maybe if you have memories of the Civil Rights Movement in the US, you can think that.
But I think, time and again, we see that the Right is actually much more committed to a bottom-up grassroots form of politics. I sometimes pose to audiences this question of whether they’d be willing to either donate to or work for a 25-year-old kid, fresh out of law school, who’s running for county judge, with the idea that maybe in 30 years, that person might be a nominee for the Supreme Court.
The initial response to that is like, county judge? That sounds lame and parochial. As opposed to, no, I’m in it for a 30-year plan. Then you’re doing it wrong. And we see this in the juxtaposition on the donor side. For example, the Koch brothers in the United States, which are big conservative investors in politics, they do this. They invest in county judges and state legislator’s races, and building this farm team, and they spend a lot of money on it.
Meanwhile, we can see on the Left, like what just happened in a Democratic election, where someone like Mike Bloomberg will spend $1 billion or something like that in a 12-week effort completely focused on himself. That kind of epitomises the difference between the Left and the Right in terms of funding for grassroots.
AL I didn’t find your KKK example off-the-wall. I guess because I’m familiar with Eli Berman’s book Radical, Religious, and Violent, which is about the way in which terrorist movements often use these grassroot services. And he talks about Hamas providing garbage services as a way of building local support. So, I think this is a pretty familiar organising strategy among groups, which are sometimes seen as being beyond the political pale, to bring themselves into the mainstream. But one of the…
EH But it’s not dirty. Every mainstream church does the same thing too. You provide free babysitting, and get people in the door because you want people in the door, and if they have young kids, they’ll respond to free babysitting. It’s not a big secret.
AL Absolutely. One of the stories I loved was of Lisa Mann and her work in Staten Island. Tell us about Lisa and what she does.
EH Sure. Lisa is a liberal from a well-to-do neighbourhood of Brooklyn, which is a very Democratic area of New York City, and she works with this as a volunteer for this organisation that sends people with a bunch of training… They train these volunteers, and they send them to the doors of people who they are going to disagree with.
So, Lisa will go over to Staten Island, which is a conservative and more blue-collar area of New York. It’s the only area of New York that voted for President Trump. It had, up until 2018, a Republican member of Congress. So, Lisa would go over to Staten Island and knock on the doors of people who she expected to be Republicans and Trump supporters, and she tried to engage them in these lengthy conversations.
The strategy that she used was called deep canvassing. And the idea is for her, with a very open heart, and with a lot of eye contact, and with a lot of listening, and with a real lack of judgement, to explain in a real deep way to this voter where she’s coming from in politics, and to invite that voter to share with her where he or she is coming from.
Like here are the values that I have, here are the people whom I love, who make me feel like I should vote this way, now tell me about you. And this is a very disarming strategy because what happens is, most of the time, the person that Lisa’s talking to at the door is not a Fox News junkie and she’s an MSNBC junkie, and their talking points, they’re regurgitating from cable news. That’s not what this is.
Most of the time, she’s actually encountering someone who is, yes, conservative, voted for Trump, but maybe didn’t think that deeply about it and maybe has some reservations about it. And when someone comes to the door and treats them with dignity and respect, and offers a listening ear, some of those people really open up and even change their mind.
And so, this study which has been studied through a bunch of experiments, has been shown to be very successful and durable. That is, you have the conversation at the door, and it’s not like the person just fills out a survey and says, I’m convinced, but then two seconds later, they’re not. This is something that has a long-lasting effect on people.
And I’ll say that it can feel, and maybe if you’re just listening to this, it feels like, wow, it’s a slog because these conversations are sometimes 30 and 45-minute conversations, and how many could you actually have? And indeed, sometimes Lisa goes, can spend a whole day, and the other volunteers too, and they have maybe one or two of these deep conversations. And some people could look at that and be like, oh my God, I spent the whole day and I had one great conversation. What a waste.
But that’s not how Lisa thinks about it because she and all of the organisers, all the volunteers in my book, they think about it so differently. They just think, I started the date with one vote, which is my own, and now I have multiplied that vote. I have multiplied it by two. I have twice the voting power I had before because I might have convinced one person.
And so, I think that’s a very, for me, inspiring way to think about politics, and it’s also inspiring to think about going to these doors of people who… At first, Lisa was nervous, really nervous to talk to, and actually engages in these really nice and kind conversations.
AL On the topic of deep canvassing, you quote Dave Fleischer, who’s a community organiser in his 60s who says that deep canvassing is about love. It’s about connecting our love of family and friends to policies we think support those that we love. There’s a lot of vulnerability involved in deep canvassing, isn’t there, compared to just turning up with a script that’s been given to you that everybody else is reading out?
EH That’s right, yes. You have to talk personally about why… You have to be a real person. Dave says, talk to someone who’s a little less like a stranger and more like a friend. And it’s interesting, I was recently talking to a bunch of church organisers about the book, and this came up, this question about vulnerability. Because all the time, if you want to build community, you have to put yourself out there and say, I’d like to organise… It could be a soccer game or something like that. And you have to hope, is anyone going to come with me on this thing?
And so I think, any time you’re building community at all, even when it’s not showing your deep feelings about reproductive rights or gay marriage or something like that, you’re putting yourself out there. And in canvassing, which is not talking to your friends, but talking to strangers, all the more so. And yes, that’s right. That’s what Dave did and Lisa does, and all of these people who are actually doing politics, as opposed to watching it from the couch. They’re putting themselves out there.
AL It’s almost like deep canvassing is the opposite of online micro-targeting, which was the topic of your first book.
AL There’s no vulnerability involved in running a computer model to do micro-targeting with a massive database.
EH Right. There’s no feedback, except through experiments. The thing about micro-targeting is that you’re trying to use all the information you can to try to understand what’s going to make a voter tick, and in some ways, that’s what you’re doing in deep canvassing too. But the online targeting doesn’t have the same feedback. What feedback do you get?
If someone clicked on something, you know they clicked on it. If someone donated, you know they donated. But in a 30-minute conversation, that eye contact and that feedback that you get from the person’s facial expressions and all that is so much more powerful.
AL So, why do people reject this notion of activism? Why is the work of folks like Naakh and Lisa seen as not worth doing?
EH There’s so many reasons. One reason is just time frame. A lot of people, they can’t get themselves to invest in a long-term plan. They say, all I care about is getting Trump not elected, and how can me getting two voters on my side matter? I don’t have the ten years that Naakh took to get a whole community organised. Climate change is important right now. If we don’t act right now, we’re toast.
And I would say that all of the organisers, even the ones who, of course, feel the immediacy of all of these problems, they just know that they have no alternative. They have a job to do, and that job is building support for the things they care about. And it doesn’t help at all to follow the details of international climate change proposals, that are never going to happen, when they could actually get people on their side in their communities.
And so, again, I think you see that difference in investment between the Left and the Right. That more short-termism that I think is more common on the Left, that’s focused on just one crisis to the next, and so there’s that. I know in the book there’s this argument about stakes. One reason you do politics as a hobbyist is because, as much as you say you really care about what’s going on, and you’re really afraid about what’s going on, you don’t act like it.
In the demographic analysis, you see that college-educated white men spend the most amount of time on hobbyism. Whereas women are much more likely to be engaged in real volunteerism. Whites spend a lot more time in America on frivolous politics, following, learning facts and stuff like that. But African Americans and Latinos spend a greater percentage of their time in volunteerism.
And I think you look at those numbers, and the theory that I think almost anyone will arrive at is that if you really feel the immediate stakes of political consequences, politics can’t possibly be a leisure activity. You have to build power. You have to try to make some headway. And so, I think that there’s a big part of the story which is, if you’re satisfied with the status quo, even if you don’t say it, but if you kind of are, then you’ll more likely achieve politics in this way.
AL There is the question as to whether hobbyism might be a gateway through to activism. You’ve argued that it tends to be a substitute for activism. Intuitively, it makes some sense. There’s only 24 hours in the day. But I want to push you a little bit on that point. There’s a study by a couple of UC Riverside researchers that find that people who were active online two years ago are more likely to be active offline today.
There’s a Michigan State University study, using random assignment, that finds that people who sign an online petition are then more likely to donate. What’s your view of some of that research that suggests that perhaps hobbyism could be a complement to activism or a gateway into activism?
EH The main argument for why that’s not true is that most people are completely learning the wrong facts and practicing the wrong skills that would lead them from one realm to the other realm. They’re learning all sorts of junk about national political drama, but they’re not following the news about how they could be involved.
In fact, if you ask someone who spends two hours a day following the news, tell me, news junkie friends, how can I get involved on climate change stuff in my community and my state, they just kind of blush and say, I actually don’t follow any of the news that could inform you of that. But I can tell you a lot about the Mueller Report or some nonsense from the Trump saga.
So, they’re learning the wrong facts, and they’re also practicing the wrong skills. I think that, as we’ve been talking about, the skills to actually get political power, which shouldn’t be a dirty word, all that means is the ability to get other people to take some actions that they wouldn’t otherwise take. Like the ability to get your neighbour to vote in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise vote, or a politician to vote on a bill in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise vote.
That requires the skills of patience and discipline and empathy and all that. And for most people, I think engaging in politics online, liking and sharing and retweeting and all that, they’re practicing a politics of real outrage and provocation and instant gratification. So, I don’t think they’re likely to lead into that. And look, of course, I think actually the research on this activism stuff is pretty weak, and it’s weak for a particular reason. It’s really hard to simulate one person, in a research environment, somehow transitioning from one to the other.
But the way I think about it in the book is I put it to the reader. Here is what we see. We see 80% plus of the people who are engaging all the time in political consumption are doing absolutely nothing in their communities. Most people who are daily news consumers in the United States belong to zero organisations, have attended zero meetings in their community, have worked zero times in the last year to solve a community problem.
And so, yes, maybe at the margins, it’s possible a few of these people are picked off and join the realm of real political engagement, but I want the reader to think about it for themselves. Are they making that transition or not? And could they reorient their behaviour to make the shift?
AL Yes, I’ve argued in the past that we need more of a politics of love on the progressive side of politics, so it does intuitively appeal to me that rapid consumption of the politics of hate is unlikely to lead to the rise of a politics of love or even acceptance of people with different views. I do like your idea that you know you’re doing something useful if people would notice when you stop doing it, and that’s probably not true if all you’re doing is writing partisan screeds on Facebook.
EH That’s right. No one misses you when you stop making your hot takes.
AL In terms of the institutions behind the rise of hobbyism, you’ve talked about the outrage industry on cable TV, and also the role of political parties stepping away a little from some of their local organisations, perhaps because the party bosses, the Tammany Halls and daily machines got a bit of a bad name for the national brand. Are these what you see as the main factors that have lead to a rise in hobbyist politics?
EH I generally think about three causes. One is this technology, which is not just cable news. It’s really just shifting all of our leisure activity to screens and to five-minute stints. A lot of people, whether their hobby is politics or sports or food or anything like that, they are toggling back and forth between work and leisure all day long, spending five minutes here or there, but never setting aside an hour to do something.
And so, that’s enabled us to have lots of Twitter back and forths, but not a lot of community meetings. So, there’s a technological explanation. The party organisation explanation is exactly like you said. For a number of reasons we’ve, as a country, disempowered local parties. We’ve been put off by some of the corruption and fraud and abuse that local party bosses have engaged in the past. And so, we’ve disempowered them. But we’ve kind of thrown out the good with the bad there, and I see this in a parallel in the religious setting too.
Some people look at the abuse of religious leaders and say, it’s just not worth the risk of empowering people as local leaders. I’d rather not have it at all than risk it. And other people say, look, whenever you have someone in a position of power, it comes with some risks that they’ll abuse that power. And unfortunately, we have to assume those risks or otherwise we don’t have that power for good.
And I think, again, in the political sphere of at least the United States, we’ve gone the route of saying, we’d rather not have local power centres at all in politics, in unions, in religion, and instead, just have individual relationships to politics. But I say in the book that I think that the biggest explanation might be this comfort with the status quo that you see among college-educated news followers. The college-educated population has just grown dramatically over time. After World War Two, it was like 5% of the population, to about a third of the population in the US today is college-educated.
And Harvard professor Theda Skocpol makes this claim that I think seems right to me, which is that as that population has grown, people do not feel individually responsible for their communities, like they’re stewards of their communities. And so, there might be the social network where they’re expected to know political facts, but they are not in a social network where they are expected to be in charge of the smooth sailing of their community.
And so, we have this situation where people who are themselves financially comfortable. They have good jobs. They are not really getting in the trenches of political organising. But instead, they are just sitting on the hobbyist side lines.
AL The first of those factors, technology, seems to suggest that the Covid-19 shutdown is going to have a massively adverse impact on activism, and possibly, cause a big surge in hobbyism. Have you thought about how people can maintain that sense of strong, engaged activism in a world in which we’re expected to be socially distant from one another?
EH Yes, I would say that I’m experiencing this in my own life, both in politics and in religion right now, which is that there are ways to be engaged online that are tying you to your own communities where you can have an impact, where you know other people. And there are ways to be engaged online where you are engaged in ways that are embracing shallow connections to people all over the country, all over the world.
And in politics, at least in American politics, we have this strong federalist system. States have a lot of power and local municipalities have a lot of power, and they have a lot of power over things that people care a lot about, the environment, about racial equality, which are huge issues on the political Left. And that means that you can build power for those issues that you care about by having strong ties to your own community.
So, I would say that there is an opportunity, as there was before we were all stranded in our homes, to connect with people in your own community online. And it’s not as good, obviously, as being face to face, but it’s still okay. But if we just replace any kind of in-person connections we were going to have with people scattered all over the world or all over the country, that’s really a bad replacement.
AL I’m interested in your personal journey over the last few years. You grew up in Rhode Island. You spent some time as a fellow of the Democratic Leadership Council. But then you talk in the back of the book about how you’ve come to get active in the Massachusetts Democratic Party, and indeed pushed them to engage in more of a kind of deep canvassing approach to politics. Tell me about that journey, and also tell me a little bit about why you chose to write about that as a political science academic, a profession which normally is ruthlessly non-partisan.
EH Yes, it’s a deeply uncomfortable thing to write about. The short background of my own journey is that I’ve always lived in Democratic areas, and I’ve always considered my politics to be moderate and centrist. I’ve worked for Republicans. The Democratic Leadership Council, it was a centrist organisation on the Democratic side during mostly the Clinton years.
And so, my politics have always been centrist. And I have positions on policies that are not comfortable all the time within the Democratic Party. For example, after I gave two lectures and my lecture on US elections about citizens united, which is our big campaign finance, a Supreme Court case in the United States, I revealed to the students that I think it was the right decision.
Supportive of that decision was a position that almost no people on the Democratic side hold. But nevertheless, I think that that’s where I am, and on a number of issues, I would say that I’m conservative. I think that, by the way, that kind of moderation, has always been in part what’s pushed me away from real politics. In fact, it’s pushed me towards academia. Because in academia, it’s very suited to someone who thinks politics is really important, but doesn’t want to be a partisan.
But basically, I think that I kept hearing from people that the reason that they don’t participate in politics is because they have the same excuse that I have, which is that if you’re not that ideological, it’s uncomfortable to be in a local organising committee of people who are there because they are super-ideological. And it made me realise that the reason that a lot of local political parties are polarising and extreme is because people like me aren’t there, because people who have a different range of views are not well-represented.
A few things happened when I started writing the book. One is I realised by interviewing people like Naakh and Lisa that I actually felt more connected to what they were doing than what I previously had thought politics was all about. The people I interviewed had a very wide range of political views. Some were far Left, some were kind of centre. Naakh himself had supported the Republican governor of Massachusetts.
But they do politics in this form of service. That’s like they build support for things they care about by making connections, by building rapport, by building trust with their neighbours. And it felt to me a lot more similar to community service work, religious work, than politics, and that was a more comfortable realm for me. So, I feel like I was better suited to it than I originally thought I was.
And the reason I wrote about this is because… In the book, I write a bit about my own political journey and getting involved in a local Democratic Party committee. And I do that because I want the reader to know that I come from the world of hobbyists too, and then I have all the excuses that they have about why not to participate.
It’s, I don’t have enough time, my views are moderate, maybe I don’t have the right disposition for politics, I say the wrong things, I whatever. I have all those same excuses, and I wanted to show that I found a lot of meaning in switching gears and engaging in that form of politics, in real politics, and hoping that that would be an invitation for a reader to try it too.
AL As a professor, how do you go about teaching this? Are you able to introduce your students to activists?
EH I don’t know if I have actually introduced them to activists. I’ve interviewed policy people. Actually, I had a good friend of mine, who was a big Trump supporter , come talk to my class the day after the Trump election, which was a very interesting experience.
AL But, to me, a brave decision to make. It’s more a liberal part of the world.
EH Yes, it was an interesting thing. I had him do it. He was a friend who was deep into this online Trump world, Alex Jones, what seems to me to be a lot of conspiracy theories.
AL InfoWars, yes.
EH And he told me throughout the whole 2016 election, Trump’s going to win, and I said, okay, okay, okay. And I said, if he wins, I’m going to interview you in front of my class. And so, I kind of had forgotten about that. But then, the day after the election, he texts me. He’s like, so when am I talking to your class? And so I arranged it, and it was intense. Some of the students were in tears. They’re nearly all liberal. I was teaching at Yale at the time.
But it was very interesting. He gave his take and the students listened. And I think there is a sense in which both parties can build these, what the sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls, empathy walls. It's like someone who lives in a town that’s been in financial ruin due to globalisation, due to the opioid epidemic, is that someone in my sphere of empathy or not?
And I think, for a lot of the students, this was a moment of thinking, for whom do I have empathy and for whom do I not? So, it was a powerful movement. Look, with my students, I just try to be straightforward about what the evidence in the research shows. I used to be in a place where I would never reveal my own political positions on things.
But in some ways, I might be shifting on that front because I sometimes find that it’s useful to be transparent with the students and say, here’s what I think, and here’s why I think it, and here’s what I think the evidence says, and here’s why that evidence leads me to think that. But if I create a warm environment where they can disagree with me or read the evidence differently…
Very little evidence we have in social science is so airtight that we should be super-convinced of our views. So, it hasn’t been a problem so far for me to talk a little bit publicly about some political work that I’ve done, while also maintaining what I think is an appropriate academic stance.
AL Yes, it sounds as though you’re taking deep canvassing and turning it into deep teaching there. I’m reminded of Frank McCourt’s wonderful book Teacher Man where he talks about teaching high schoolers in New York City, and just the value of opening up about his stories, enabling them to open up about their stories, and to become, in their case, great writers. In this instance, my sense is that opening up a little bit about your political journey helps students think more rigorously about their own political journey, and perhaps challenge some of their prejudices.
EH Yes, and I think that it also just gets them into the realm of thinking that the people with whom we disagree, we don’t have to hate them. They’re not crazy. I’ve been having this interesting back and forth with someone in my community with whom I think I disagree about some things related to housing density and so forth. And it’s possible that people who are on different sides of this issue, or any one issue, you can find common ground and find a good compromise. And it’s also possible that they can’t.
And so, the alternative is, let’s see who can get more people in an election. If I can’t convince you, person in the town who disagrees with me, and get on the same page with you, then I’m just going to try to get more votes than you. And that’s not a threat. That’s not a mean thing to say. That’s how democracy’s supposed to work, and hopefully, everyone can be on good terms afterwards.
I think that, again, it’s like when you’re in, especially, an online bubble of partisan animosity, you just get into this space where people who disagree with you are stupid and evil, and there’s no other alternative.
AL Your next project, I understand, is thinking about some of these issues from a business perspective. And I wonder if you could say a little bit about your critique of Starbuck’s founder Howard Schultz’s short-lived 2019 presidential bid, and how Schultz set about a campaign for the presidency.
EH For folks who don’t know, Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks, briefly toyed with the idea of running as a third-party candidate, which in the United States, it’s just not a viable… You can’t do it. The system doesn’t accommodate such a thing. And then he backed out of it. And of course, we’ve had two other billionaires, Mike Bloomberg and Tom Steyer run as Democrats and spend… I don’t know. Collectively, I think they’ve spent over $1 billion, for sure, on their bids.
And they were sort of frivolous vanity projects, and I contrast that with the Starbucks business model, which I actually think is awesome. Because the Starbucks business model has all of the makings of good grassroots politics. In fact, all retail success does. Starbucks started with a few stores in one region until it got that model right, and then it expanded slowly, fast for a business, but in years. Over a period of years, they expanded to more regions.
They were really responsive to their customers. At first, Starbucks was super-snobby. The baristas wore bow ties. They played opera music in the thing. And Howard Schultz was like, we’ll never serve skimmed milk in our stores. But within a few years, he’s offering frappuccinos with free internet, and meeting people where they were trying to retain a strong brand, and also meeting people where they were.
And so, there’s a lot there that speaks to me as what’s good in politics too. One thing is just meeting people’s immediate needs. If you want to make money in the business world, you have to figure out what people want, and that’s true in politics too. I think we’ve seen, in American politics, these candidates who spend a lot of time focusing on big national policy ideas and having plans for everything, only to learn that actually voters aren’t responsive to that at all.
And in the Starbucks case, what they’re responsive to is a reliable, nice atmosphere with free internet and a free drink coupon if things didn’t go right. And I think that the political parties can benefit from that knowledge too, and also from the slow and steady approach. You bottom-up. Starbucks wasn’t started with a national $1 billion ad campaign. No successful business is really started that way. And yet, these billionaires, when they try to run for president, they took that approach.
AL Right. I think about Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, and the way he talks about the importance of building a cadre of supporters around you at the grassroots level and then going from there. Let me finish with a handful of standard questions that I ask everyone, Eitan. What advice would you give to your teenage self?
EH I don’t know. That’s a good question.
AL Get more activist and be less hobbyist, I would have thought. But here I am trying to answer the questions as well as ask them.
EH I didn’t really particularly have strong political aspirations, but if I were to have them, I would focus on going slow and steady and building relationships. I see this with my students. I don’t know about my own advice to myself. But I give a lot of advice to students, a lot of whom want to be politicians or be involved in politics. And a lot of times, their first intuition is to move to Washington and work at a think tank after college, which is what I did.
And I actually think that maybe the right thing is for them to go home, go to where they came from, and start building up the political community that they’re eager to see.
AL Right. Bill Clinton graduating from Yale and going straight back to Arkansas politics. What’s something you used to believe, but no longer do?
EH Oh my God, you’re putting me on the spot for this. What did I used to believe that I don’t anymore? I have no idea. I think political science research tends to make people more conservative actually, in the sense that any time there’s a big policy intervention, there’s a million things that go wrong, all sorts of unintended consequences.
There’s pretty good research that suggests, as American politics has opened up the voting system… We have now 30 days in some places of early voting, extended polling hours, no registration deadlines, and all that has amounted to basically no increase in participation. And it turned out that a lot of the reasons that people are not voting had nothing to do with the logistical burdens that we thought.
And I think, actually, in one policy area after the other, we see this, that a lot of the limitations in American politics of people getting what they want are not structural, but are behavioural. And I think there are a lot of people out there, and I think I was one of these people for a long time that was very eager to always learn what the next big reform idea is.
Right now, in American politics, it’s ranked-choice voting. And I guess I now think that, I don’t think politics would change much about any of this stuff, even if we took Australia’s lesson and did universal turnout. I don’t think a lot of things are going to change without a real behavioural, organisational shift, and people taking their roles as citizens more seriously.
AL Right. Weekend compulsory voting and preferential voting, I do make a case for, but I understand where you’re coming from and talking about this is also an issue of civic culture, the sort of de Tocqueville notions that it’s about the grassroots vibe, rather than the top-down institutions.
EH Right. And we see with the coronavirus, people are willing to make great sacrifices and change their behaviours dramatically in the face of a really scary virus. But when it comes to things that are less immediate, even if they are really important, and even if in the long run more deadly, it’s hard for people to get off the couch.
AL You’re a successful associate professor. You’ve got three kids. You’ve just published a book which seems to be doing wonderfully well. When are you most happy, Eitan?
EH When am I most happy? I’ll say, right now, my book tour has been basically cancelled, because of coronavirus of course, and I’m talking to you right now from a pretty remote island in Massachusetts. It’s an 11-mile barrier island that’s almost all just grasslands and marsh and dunes. And every morning… Of course, I have three little kids, and there’s no school, especially for the ones who are not school-aged yet.
So, every morning, I now take my four-year-old on a hike through these salt marshes. I feel a little uncomfortable saying this because there’s a lot of horrible things going on in the world right now, and we’re really lucky to be able to be on this deserted island. But walking through salt marshes with a four-year-old every morning is a pretty wonderful blessing.
AL I’ve spent a weekend on those barrier islands. It’s a pretty special part of the world. What’s the most important thing you do in your life to stay mentally and physically healthy?
EH I keep the Jewish Sabbath. So, every Friday night to Saturday, we turn down all of our computers and phones, and we don’t use our car, we don’t shop, and we are just with our family and community in our neighbourhood, and I don’t know what I would do without that.
AL And finally, Eitan, which person or which experience has most shaped your view of living an ethical life?
EH I would say that, first of all, I think that religious texts have been a big shaper in my life, and having a routine around a religious calendar and customs and traditions, have shaped my life dramatically where I can’t imagine what life would be without it. And, of course, I can also point to members of my family, a grandfather who is still alive. He’s 96 now.
A lot of people have someone like him in your life who’ve had this balance just right of working, and committing to a community, and engaging in community organisations, and having fun, and getting the balance just right. And I can only hope that I can get the balance between family, work, community, country just right.
AL Eitan Hersh, thanks for appearing on the Good Life podcast today.
EH Thank you for having me.
AL That was Eitan Hersh. His new book is Politics is for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change. Thank for listening to this week’s episode of the Good Life. We love getting feedback, so please leave us a rating or a comment on Apple Podcasts, formerly known as iTunes. Next week, I’ll be back with another inspiring guest to discuss living a happier, healthier and more ethical life.