Power, Friendship, and some Democratic “Rules”

February 13, 2020

Hersh book coverCross-posted to Front Porch Republic

In the wake of the chaotic mess that was this year’s Iowa caucuses, the politically inclined out there might not be in the mood for more fake news. Still, seeing clearly through the lies told about–and often, it seems, to ourselves–democratic politics can be a helpful thing. Hence my appreciation for Eitan Hersh’s delightfully contrarian–and yet also genuinely encouraging–new book, Politics is for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change. Yes, I was turned off by that too-long subtitle too. I picked up and read a copy is because a former student of mine strongly urged me to, and I’m grateful for that too. What I thought would be another overly earnest political how-to book turned out to be packed with surprising, well-supported insights and recommendations, of the sort which anyone who believes in the value of defending one’s values in America’s broken-but-not-yet-abandoned democratic arena (and that should be all of us) ought to consider.

So what about that fake news? Well, first of all, studies show that lots of people lie about their political engagement: in one study, the number was as high as “50 percent of confirmed nonvoters saying that they had voted in a recent election” (p. 46). A depressing fact, that. (Also worth noting is that controlled studies show the reverse isn’t true: people who actually vote essentially never falsely claim to have not done so.) On the other hand, it seems that lots of people lie about their expressed political hatreds too, so that’s a silver lining. While outrageous stories exist, the key point is exactly that word–such stories are magnified and echoed throughout the social media ecosystem for the purposes of performative outrage. According to Hersh’s data, outside of a few rare actions and the subsequent overreactions to them by online audiences, the evidence for the high levels of contempt supposedly characterizing American politics is scant, about as deep as the “play hate” of sports fans, who will “report believing false claims” and “whining about their kids marrying supporters of their rivals” to about the same degree that committed Republican or Democratic activists report the same. In short, while some do experience “tension at family reunions,” there is good reason to believe that, behind the surveys, most actually don’t. In fact, it seems probable that the rancor presented as “poisoning” our political atmosphere actually just mostly consists millions of people who think its fun to “shout from the bleachers that the other side sucks” (pp. 33-34).

It is not a new criticism, of course, to point out that large numbers of Americans treat political debate as a sporting match, or better, as a hobby, with all the episodic intensity and general casualness that implies. The argument which Hersh develops in the book, however, takes the criticism of hobbyism in revealing and important directions. As he has laid out in a couple of recent essays in support of his book’s thesis (backed up by a good deal of solid survey and social science research), the shouting-from-the-bleachers metaphor is not a general one. Rather, it mostly describes a population which is mostly more white, more college-educated, more male, more self-identifyingly “liberal,” and more white-collar-employed than the American mean. Moreover, it describes actions that become more pronounced when a win is assumed, or when the candidate is personally exciting, or when the issue is “postmaterialist”–that is, more focused on narrow issues that lend themselves to moral identification, rather than broader socio-economic issues. Hence it is that we often–not always, but fairly often–see voter turn-out declining in tightly competitive races (p. 47), greater online enthusiasm for protecting dolphins and funding NPR than for anti-poverty programs (p. 62), more Democratic donors concentrating their money on high-profile fights than on nuts-and-bolts state-level legislative contests (p. 80), and protest actions that are more cathartic than strategic (p. 115).  In short, Hersh concludes (speaking very much to college-educated male white liberals with jobs in an idea industry–in his case, a tenured professorship at Tufts University–like himself):

So there it is. What news do political junkies demand? Outrage and gossip. Why? Because it’s alluring. What news do we avoid? Local news. Why? It’s boring. What do we think of our partisan opponents? We hate them. Do we really hate them? No, but politics is more fun if we root for a team and spew anger at the other side….When do we vote? When there’s a spectacle. When do we click? When politics can be a frivolous distraction. When do we donate? When there’s a cocktail party or a viral video. What are we doing? We’re taking actions not to empower our political values, but to satisfy our passion for the sport of politics (p. 82).

That paragraph might lead one to believe that Hersh’s argument is very much in the localist and Luddite spirit of Neil Postman or Robert Putnam, two scholars who, in very different but related ways, made clear some of the corrupting effects which technology and professionalization have had on civic life. That belief wouldn’t be wrong; there are plenty of arguments in this book–as well as plenty of sharp observations–which can be filed alongside every social critique of Facebook (p. 125) or of the enlightened “spiritual but not religious” posture (p. 102) you can imagine. But it wouldn’t be entirely fair either. Hersh is no scold; he recognizes that our present-day information ecosystem makes possible a healthy engagement with ideas, and he’s unwilling to dismiss the potential validity of “slacktivism” (the idea that social media-enabled token actions actually contribute to voter enthusiasm and civic participation–see pp. 137-141). The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that the many persuasive claims Hersh makes are really best understood as a form of class critique. Let me unpack that interpretation.

I’m not saying that Hersh reduces all his data to a simple Marxist analytic; on the contrary, his book touches upon the historical developments (say, the rise of the primary system for choosing nominees–see pp. 49-50, 177-178), technological developments (the effect of instantaneous communication on making political connections–pp. 143-144), and structural developments (the changes in campaign finance and branding–pp. 131-132) which have contributed to the phenomenon he’s describing. (If anything, especially when it comes to the way the primary process has been warped by campaign finance rules, he leaves the reader wanting more.)  But above these important variables there is, again and again, one truth that comes forward: those who are living more or less comfortable lives, lives that have, at least in their basic outlines, the support of America’s majority establishment, tend to treat politics as a game–as entertainment. Which means they don’t as much worry as much about actually canvassing neighborhoods or actually having conversations with those they disagree with; they’re not as concerned about alienating potential voters or dividing their own potential movements–because they don’t fundamentally need the power which democratic success can deliver, whereas others do. Just to highlight a few of Hersh’s observations:

In gender studies of politics, the average man has been found to know more facts about politics than the average woman…[But in] actual political behaviors, as opposed to just survey responses gauging interest and knowledge, the gender gap often goes in the other direction. For a number of years now, women have been consistently more likely to vote than men. The progressive activist groups that have emerged since 2016 are overwhelmingly populated by and led by women (p. 97).

While non-white Americans, particularly those in the middle and upper classes, can engage in political hobbyism as much as anyone else, research on racial politics suggests some important differences….[W]hen I asked about how people use their time on politics, whites said they spend more time on politics than nonwhites, but that’s only because they spend more time consuming news online. Blacks and Latinos dedicated a significantly larger portion of their political time to actual volunteerism than whites reported…. Among respondents who were not college educated…blacks and other minorities were three times more likely to engage in political volunteerism (pp. 185-186).

In communities with real needs, where stakes are high, where fears are palpable, politics and service are not different things….The meshing of politics and service happens in minority communities and immigrant communities…because group members feel mutual obligation to serve those needs. They feel a linked fate….[P]olitical mobilization happens not through the lethargic political parties, which generally no longer see their role as serving those in need, but in local community organizations, which help families facing legal issues, health issues, and work issues. These organizations know that part of the way they help is through political empowerment (p. 193).

Fleshing out these observations are numerous hopeful and edifying stories that Hersh shares of people genuinely connecting with others, and building local democracy–and thus local power–through doing so. He tells his readers about 98-year-old Naakh Vysoky, who from his handicap-accessible apartment in Brighton, MA, has, over the decades, helped hundreds of Russian and Ukranian immigrants obtain citizenship, find apartments, secure jobs–and not coincidentally, got them to deliver their votes to elect a state representative who made sure the sidewalks from Naakh’s apartment complex down to the subway line were shoveled every winter. He talks about Angela Aldous, a nurse, MS survivor, and veteran of the doomed Scott Walker recall effort in Wisconsin, who in her new home of Westmoreland county, PA, has built a service organization which provides transportation to doctors’ appointments, finds housing for evictees–and not coincidentally, delivers votes that get congresspeople elected. Perhaps most importantly, he discusses Dave Fleischer, a pioneer of probably the only approach to political canvassing whose effectiveness has actually been subject to scientific tests, whose whole approach to civic engagement is premised on those classic neighborly virtues of  respect, reciprocation, and trust. It is built upon the idea of giving and receiving stories; it requires patience and understanding; it is socially awkward; and it requires, more than anything else, mixing ones political convictions with a sense of pluralism and humility. It’s not a nationally scalable method by any means. But as a way of approaching the problem of political power locally? The evidence in support of it is not easily denied.

Early last year, I read a wonderful book by an old friend of mine, Michael Austin, in which he argued, on the level of history and psychology and philosophy, that there can be no future for America’s democratic experiment without “civic friendship”; to reduce America’s political debates to Alinsky-esque struggles over power is to deny the genuinely moral accomplishments which have attended 230 years of American self-government. As a call to a political ethos, I thought it was brilliant; as a diagnosis which unavoidably confronts ideological and structural realities in American today, though, I found it lacking. Hersh’s Politics is for Power, with its detailed consideration of structural obstacles and ideological differences, is a marvelous complement to Austin’s book. It tells us–or at least one set of us, a demographic set that really needs to hear it–that the civic work of actual face-to-face, small-scale engagement is the key to power, and friendship too.

With that mixture, one might imagine Hersh is setting out to reject Saul Alinsky and his famous argument for politically strategic confrontation in Rules for Radicals entirely. Instead, he never even mentions the man. Is that because he disagrees with Alinsky’s ideas? I don’t think so, at least not entirely (actually, I strongly suspect that Hersh would agree with Alinsky’s condemnation of “consensus politics”–which he distinguished from the real work of compromise–as an ideal embraced solely by the comfortable or those who make a fetish of “reconciliation,” usually both). Instead, I think it’s simply because this is a different America, one transformed socially and technologically from that of Alinsky’s a half-century ago. In a sense, our real elite “consensus” today is a lot of play argument, heaps of sound and fury which keep people comfortably separated in their pools of upper-middle-class online spite, while real harms are being perpetuated in the livelihoods of those–the poor, the refugees, the religious minorities, and more–who don’t have the time or ability to endlessly respond to President Trump’s ignorant provocations on Twitter. For those tired of the fake news and play hate, who are convinced by Austin and their own better natures that accomplishing something better is actually still possible within the American system, Hersh provides a new, detailed, 21st-century appropriate set of adaptable “rules” for us all, radicals or otherwise. (Peter Levine, a colleague of Hersh’s and a scholar of civic life, gives a great example of locally adapting them here.) I’m grateful for these rules, and I think anyone who can pull themselves away from owning the libs on their phone long enough to read it will be too.

Russell Arben Fox

Professor of Political Science and Director of the History and Political Science Program at Friends University

Tags: American politics, building resilient societies, participative democracy