The Problem With Participatory Democracy Is the Participants

Originally published by Eithan D. Hershjune on, 6.29.17

At backyard barbecues this holiday weekend, liberals will gab with one another about how much time they’re spending on politics. More than ever, they are watching cable news, and refreshing Twitter and Facebook feeds.

Many kept up with the recent special House elections. Some skipped work to watch the spectacle of James Comey’s Senate hearing. Others have been using a new technology called Resistbot to send text messages that are transformed into letters faxed to a representative’s or senator’s office. Yet, for all this activism, they have a sinking feeling that maybe they’re just spinning their wheels.

Americans who live in relative comfort are emotionally invested in politics, especially after the election, but in a degraded form of politics that caters to the voyeurism of news junkies and the short attention spans of slacktivists. They are engaging in a phenomenon I call “political hobbyism.” They desperately want to do something, but not something that is boring, demanding or slow.

Political hobbyists want easy ways to register their feelings. Democrats in particular embrace tools like Resistbot that offer instantly gratifying participation. Beyond the current political climate, Democrats, more than Republicans, believe in mass participation as a core value and also believe it empowers their side.

But cheap participation reflects a troubling infirmity in how partisans of both parties engage in politics. In fact, it is not because of gerrymandering, Citizens United, cable news or any of the other common scapegoats that our system is broken, but because of us: ordinary people who are doing politics the wrong way.

For years, political scientists have studied how people vote, petition, donate, protest, align with parties and take in the news, and have asked what motivates these actions. The typical answers are civic duty and self-interest.

But civic duty and self-interest do not capture the ways that middle- and upper-class Americans are engaging in politics. Now it is the Facebooker who argues with friends of friends he does not know; the news consumer who spends hours watching cable; the repeat online petitioner who demands actions like impeaching the president; the news sharer willing to spread misinformation and rumor because it feels good; the data junkie who frantically toggles between horse races in suburban Georgia and horse races in Britain and France and horse races in sports (even literal horse races).

What is really motivating this behavior is hobbyism — the regular use of free time to engage in politics as a leisure activity. Political hobbyism is everywhere.

There are several reasons. For one, technology allows those interested in politics to gain specialized knowledge and engage in pleasing activities, like reinforcing their views with like-minded friends on Facebook. For another, our era of relative security (nearly a half-century without a conscripted military) has diminished the solemnity that accompanied politics in the past. Even in the serious moments since the 2016 election, political engagement for many people is characterized by forwarding the latest clip that embarrasses the other side, like videos of John McCain asking incomprehensible questions or Elizabeth Warren “destroying” Betsy DeVos.

Then there are the well-intentioned policy innovations over the years that were meant to make politics more open but in doing so exposed politics to hobbyists: participatory primaries, ballot initiatives, open-data policies, even campaign contribution limits. The contribution rules that are now in place favor the independent vanity projects of wealthy egomaniacs instead of allowing parties to raise money and build durable local support.

The result of this is political engagement that takes the form of partisan fandom, the seeking of cheap thrills, and amateurs trying their hand at a game — the billionaire funding “super PACs” all the way down to the everyday armchair quarterback who professes that the path to political victory is through ideological purity. (In the face of a diverse and moderate country, the demand for ideological purity itself can be a symptom of hobbyism: If politics is a sport and the stakes are no higher, why not demand ideological purity if it feels good?)

Not all activism is political hobbyism. A Black Lives Matter protest meant to call attention to police misconduct and demand change on an issue with life-or-death consequences is not hobbyism. Neither is a spontaneous airport protest over the president’s travel ban, which also had clear goals and urgent demands.

What about attendance at town hall meetings hosted by members of Congress? These events could be places for serious discourse and reveal crucial citizen perspectives on matters of public policy, but they are more often hijacked by fair-weather activists looking to see action. It is certainly peculiar that Democrats who are motivated by the health care debate now couldn’t be bothered to show up at town hall meetings back in 2009 (or to vote in 2010), and the Tea Party activists of 2009 can’t be bothered now, since it wouldn’t be any fun for them.

What, exactly, is wrong with political hobbyism? We live in a democracy, after all. Aren’t we supposed to participate? Political hobbyism might not be so bad if it complemented mundane but important forms of participation. The problem is that hobbyism is replacing other forms of participation, like local organizing, supporting party organizations, neighbor-to-neighbor persuasion, even voting in midterm elections — the 2014 midterms had the lowest level of voter participation in over 70 years.

The Democratic Party, the party that embraces “engagement,” is in atrophy in state legislatures across the country. Perhaps this is because state-level political participation needs to be motivated by civic duty; it is not entertaining enough to pique the interest of hobbyists. The party of Hollywood celebrities also struggles to energize its supporters to vote. Maybe it is because when politics is something one does for fun rather than out of a profound moral obligation, the citizen who does not find it fun has no reason to engage. The important parts of politics for the average citizen simply may not be enjoyable.

Political hobbyism is a problem not just for Democrats. The hobbyist in the Oval Office is evidence enough of the Republican version. Donald Trump’s election was possible because both political parties mistakenly decided several decades ago to have binding primary elections determine presidential nominations. Rather than having party leaders vet candidates for competency and sanity, as most democracies do, our parties turned the nomination process into a reality show in which the closest things to vetting are a clap-o-meter and a tracking poll.

Nevertheless, the problem of hobbyism holds more severe consequences for Democrats than for Republicans because of their commitment to mass engagement as a core value. An unqualified embrace of engagement, without leaders channeling activists toward clear goals, yields the spinning of wheels of hobbyism.

Democrats should know that an unending string of activities intended for instant gratification does not amount to much in political power. What they should ask is whether their emotions and energy are contributing to a behind-the-scenes effort to build local support across the country or whether they are merely a hollow, self-gratifying manifestation of the new political hobbyism.

Eitan D. Hersh (@eitanhersh) is an associate professor of political science at Tufts University.

Selected comments from article:

[David] I view what the author calls hobbyism as staying informed from sources that I trust and that have established histories of professional journalism and investigative reporting. Commenting is sort of a hobby and is both interesting and fun because I can read how others think as well as express my own thoughts. This seems like a true form of civic engagement. 

However, I agree with the author that what also matters is having good local organizations and getting out the vote. Voting matters - but well-informed voting matters most. Trump was voted into office, but to me, not by well-informed people. So, both parts - staying well informed and helping to ensure that local organizations effectively get out the vote - are necessary. 

I was frankly shocked in the past election when I read many comments from certain segments that said they were not planning to vote or were "maybes" because they didn't like either candidate. Even when there are two candidates that may be less than ideal to varying degrees, there is always one that is better for your goals, but that seemed to escape some potential voters in this election or just not matter. 

Democrats also missed the boat by not effectively countering the Republican efforts to win state house control and governorships earlier, so we are paying a heavy price now following the severe gerrymandering that has occurred (we were guilty in the past though). In a democracy, voting matters immensely as does real knowledge.


[DC] Interesting piece with plenty to debate, but I'd like to point out a fairly glaring misrepresentation:

"Donald Trump’s election was possible because both political parties mistakenly decided several decades ago to have binding primary elections determine presidential nominations. Rather than having party leaders vet candidates for competency and sanity, as most democracies do, our parties turned the nomination process into a reality show in which the closest things to vetting are a clap-o-meter and a tracking poll."

American political parties are NOT parties at all, and they bear no resemblance to parties in "most democracies" elsewhere in the world.
In Europe, parties have actual *members* that vote with respect to leadership (e.g., Britain's Labour party and the successful leadership campaigns of Jeremy Corbyn), and they pay dues. The Members of Parliament and other political officials of the party are directly answerable to the membership, that is, the average citizen with enough interest to become a member.

Parties in America have NO members to whom they answer (notwithstanding the stupid "membership surveys" they mail out each year that are thinly veiled polls and donation requests). That means the party is a collection of politicians in search of a base, not an actual manifestation of a collection of citizens seeking to express their political voice.

Hersh speaks of parties as though they've dropped the ball --- but the real problem is they are not parties at all.


I don't discount your observations, but I will add to them. One problem with actual political engagement these days is the constant badgering for donations. The minute one signs a petition, or goes to a local organizing meeting, or attempts to volunteer, one is bombarded by fundraising messages and pleas for contributions. Sadly, I'm not in the 1% and can't ante up daily or weekly to support worthy political causes. I'd like the DNC to start thinking about ways to engage the manpower and brainpower of interested citizens who may be more flush with ideas than cash.

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