Stop Playing at Politics, and Get Involved

In a new book, political scientist Eitan Hersh says that the way to influence people and win elections is to take action locally
Eitan Hersh sits in a chair, with his hands crossed. In his new book, political scientist Eitan Hersh says that the way to influence people and win elections is to take action locally.
“When I look at myself, at my history of political engagement, I wish I identified . . . less with the news-obsessed, retweeting, snarky, aloof-from-my-community hobbyist,” writes Eitan Hersh. Photo: Anna Miller
January 21, 2020

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You’ve ranted about Trump on Facebook, maybe even trolled some hate-spewing alt-right types on Twitter. You checked the latest poll numbers on FiveThirtyEight and today’s posts on Daily Kos. You’re concerned about politics and you’ve done your part, right?

Eitan Hersh, a professor of political science at Tufts, has some bad news for you—and for a great number of other liberals. Author of the new book, Politics Is for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change, Hersh says all that sort of activity—treating politics much like a spectator sport—is little more than a waste of time, and in fact might be making things worse rather than better.

His prescription? Get involved locally, where all political action truly begins.

It’s not impossible to do. In his book, Hersh, A05, tells the story of Angela Aldous, an active liberal in Madison, Wisconsin, who moved to Trump country in western Pennsylvania for her husband’s job. She felt isolated and helpless there, but saw a handful of people protesting the anti-Muslim immigrant ban one winter day in 2017, and soon was meeting with them regularly. From the beginning, the group understood that they needed to take a long view.

“I knew we would lose most elections for many years,” Aldous told Hersh. “We could make gains and we’d still lose. But I wanted to build something sustainable that would survive when we lost elections.” They focused on issues such as the environment and health care, learned about organizing, and surprisingly even helped elect a Democrat in a very close special Congressional election.

“They have to try to convince their neighbors to do something that they want them to do,” Hersh said. “There’s really no path to do that through anger. You need to meet them where they are and recruit them and be kind to them.”

That’s just one of a number of case studies in the book of people who don’t talk politics, but do it. “These people really take my breath away,” Hersh said. “I’m hoping that people who read the book who are hobbyists can see the value in this alternative approach.”

Hersh tells his own story of getting involved in his local community, saying you can’t just talk the talk—you need to walk the walk. “Whether you are young or old, mobile or stationary, you have the power to turn your vote into more than one vote, to turn your voice into more than one voice,” he writes.

Tufts Now recently spoke with Hersh about treating politics like a spectator sport—what he calls hobbyism—and how getting involved locally is the true test of how much you care.

Tufts Now: You say politics is for power. How do you define power? What is the value of power?

Eitan Hersh: Power is getting people to do something that they wouldn’t otherwise do. Politics is neutral to values, and we’re seeing that now. People who you might not like are in power, and one of the reasons is because they convinced people to do something they wouldn’t have otherwise done.

If you’re not doing that—moving people in your direction—you’re not doing politics. If you are not part of that, then you’re observing politics; you’re interested in politics as a hobby or as an idea; but you’re not doing it. In some ways the book title is especially provocative to liberals, because they say, “Uh, that doesn’t sound right. Power? I don’t want power.”

But they might say, “I want to do good.”

Right. But in order to do good, you need power. I think the message of the book—through all the stories of people getting actively involved—is that it’s a positive and hopeful activity to be engaged in politics, because the way you convince people to take actions that they wouldn’t otherwise take is basically by being kind and showing them you care about them.

If in the end a reader says, “I just don’t want to do that,” then my reaction is, “OK, but just say you don’t care. What that means is that you don’t care.”

Many people, though, think, “Well, I commented on Twitter about something, so I’m done. I’ve done my duty as someone who’s politically involved.”

I would say that’s basically worthless—and harmful. You think you’re doing something, but you’re not. You’re also engaging in this sort of outrage that is just so different from what you need to do to convince someone of something. It doesn’t create the politics of empathy.

When we behave like that online, we’re negatively affecting our own interests, because we’re making the politicians behave badly, too.

Because we’re reinforcing the behavior that generates our angry response?

Exactly. I think of that Kamala Harris moment in her debate early on when she went after Biden—that’s what people responded to. Her campaign made millions of dollars, because people saw anger, and they were like, “Yeah, I want that.” Politicians know this. They know that the way to get donations and attention is by yelling. That’s because we incentivize them.

I ask my classes, usually rooms full of liberals, “Who’s the best at raising low-dollar money?” They all say, “Sanders,” and I say, “No, of course not. It’s Trump.”

I’m surprised.

You show you’re fighting; you say anything to get attention. That’s the kind of politics we are all responsible for when we participate in that.

It seems like the prescription in your book—to get active locally vs. viewing politics as a spectator sport—is more for Democrats than Republicans.

I think it’s for the center to left. It doesn’t need to be written for the right, because I think the right already knows these lessons. I think when you tell someone that the path to power is local community involvement, many on the right, particularly weekly attendees at churches or those who participate in an NRA chapter, they know this already.

How much of a difference is there in active engagement for liberals vs. conservatives?

Liberals are not participating in politics as much. In 2016 they had record-high interest in elections—but how many of them said they’d been involved in any real-world volunteering, supporting a party, attending a meeting? It was pretty low.

There was all this excitement about Obama in 2008. And the second he won, with a filibuster-proof Senate and control of the House, and started pushing for policy change, all the Democrats stayed at home. They weren’t there to support Democrats in those town hall meetings.

In 2010, participation—particularly among young Democrats—declined sharply. Politics is a long-term game, and you need to be able to sustain that energy if you want to win anything, even in the times that are down. I think the only path to that is through community organizations.

How did you decide to participate in local politics in your community?

I decided to get involved because I learned from the people I studied in the book what it means to be involved, and I realized that it’s a lot closer to doing community service.

I was really hesitant to write about my own experience, but in the end I decided to do it because, in some ways, I’m trying to convince someone to do something, which is to be involved in their community.

The reader is going to be kicking and screaming trying to tell me why they can’t do it. They have all these excuses. I thought that my own story was a way to say I know those excuses. I have them, too. I don’t have a lot of free time. I don’t love being in meetings all the time. I don’t come from the world of organizers. I come from the world of hobbyists, so I know what it’s like.

“Tip” O’Neill said that all politics is local. How does that fit in with what you’re talking about?

Most people are not political hobbyists, because most people don’t care about politics very much. What’s going to motivate them to vote for your side is not talking to them about the Green New Deal or Medicare for All. It’s meeting them where they are—and taking care of them. At the end of the book, I make some controversial suggestions for what political parties should do, and it’s really about taking care of people.

If someone is not able to pay their electric bill, a political organization can  pay for it. You get them child care, elder care—things like that. You have got to figure out a way to motivate them—and it’s just not going to be twenty presidential debates or Medicare for All, even if you think they should care about that.

If you do care about politics, you also have to see the path between local engagement and the stuff you care about. Whether it’s environmental, racial, whatever issue you’re focused on, there is really a connection between what you can do in your community and the national politics.

If you look at Trump and you don’t like his policies because they seem aimed at harming poor people and people of color, how does the prescription to get involved locally help?

There’s no community in the country where there are no racial tensions to be addressed. If you’re in a town where you think, “Oh no, that’s not true here,” you’re not looking very hard. There are zoning rules, access to schools, sharing of resources across communities, and other issues that have big implications for racial justice. If you think the environment is only going to be solved through the U.N. resolution and not through your community taking strong action on something, then you’re not doing your part. Every person has a part to play, and none of that includes watching Trump on TV.

Eitan Hersh will read from Politics Is for Power on January 22 at 7 p.m. at Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, Massachusetts; January 23 at 7 p.m. at Powerhouse Arena in Brooklyn, New York; March 1 at 7 p.m. at Solid State Books in Washington, D.C.; March 16 at 7 p.m. at West Portal Books in San Francisco, California; and March 18 at 6 p.m. at the Los Angeles Public Library Hollywood branch.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.

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