Overcoming Political Hobbyism: How TFAS students are getting involved in local politics
By: Emily Schroen ’19, International Affairs Coordinator
There’s a reason most people dread political conversations at Thanksgiving dinner. Family members with polar political affiliations shouting about the president, taxes, policy and whatever social issue is currently trending is enough to give even the most experienced debater a headache. With America’s two-party system and an array of highly moralized political issues, it’s no wonder conversations about politics feel intense and personal. It’s almost like watching Yankees and Red Socks fans scream at each other about a controversial call.
Some of us approach politics like we would a sport or other kind of hobby. We constantly talk about it, watch replays, keep up to date on the newest information and aggressively cheer for our side. It can be cathartic, and even fun, to express our frustrations through the lens of a political identity. It’s unifying. It makes us feel like a part of something. It’s an outlet.
Dr. Eitan Hersh is a political scientist at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. After researching and analyzing political behavior over the last decade he coined the term “political hobbysim” to describe the sports-like behavior we witness at our dinner tables and on our Twitter accounts. He describes the phenomenon as, “A catchall for all the ways we do politics to serve our own emotional or intellectual needs or wants rather than do a kind of power-seeking, organized behavior. It’s arguing about the news, sharing the news, being an at-home pundit about the news. All of those things that involve giving politics your headspace and emotion but not doing the real work of it” (Klein, 2020). In his recent publication Politics is for Power, Hersh argues that this kind of political engagement is detrimental and misses the point of what politics is all about: manipulating the balance of power.
Sometimes we forget that watching the news and expressing a political opinion online isn’t actually “doing” politics. Influencing politics by convincing people who they should vote for or by interacting with politicians and lobbying them is hard and demanding work. The media makes it so much easier to shallowly engage.
We often fall prey to attention-grabbing, sensationalist news stories and sometimes think that voting for president every few years suffices for our political engagement. However, many TFAS students are also deeply involved in shifting power in their local communities. If politics is a game, they’re invested in playing it and shifting the balance of power.
Sara Daas ’21, a Leadership Scholar and student in the Public Policy and Economics program track, is one such student. She interned at the Madison Coalition, an advocacy organization devoted to restoring a balance of power between the state and federal government in the summer of 2021.
Sara identifies as conservative and being surrounded by liberals on her campus she was eager to find a community of politically like-minded individuals. She joined an organization called College Republicans that has satellite organizations on various campuses. The group on her campus had been trying to host events like lectures and debates for a long time, mostly with the intention of increasing understanding between Republicans and Democrats. Sara tells me that when she engages with her conservative peers she doesn’t “expect to convince people.” She says students need to hear other perspectives to realize that a lot of the time we have the same goals, we just approach them from different perspectives. She tells me that a level of communication and respect is essential for actually convincing someone to vote a certain way without making them feel used.
A lot of the work Sara does at her internship with the Madison Coalition relies on this open communication and grassroots advocacy. When she reaches out to potential voters she tries to make the conversation about them, particularly their interests and things they care deeply about. When the person knows she cares and hears their perspective they’re more receptive to hearing about Sara’s political goals and requests for political action like emailing a supreme court commission or voting on a particular bill. One example Sara gives is court-packing. She tells me, “9 times out of 10 people are against court-packing. They don’t always see the threat of it, but when I mention that there is house legislation right now to pack the supreme court, that usually gets them to say, “Oh, well in that case!” Sara is doing the work of politics by informing and prompting people to engage in political action who might have been unmotivated to act otherwise.
For a student in the Leadership and the American Presidency program track participant, Tyler Howell ’21, political apathy never felt like an option. He sees himself as a potential change-maker in a movement that desperately needs attention: prison reform.
As an ex-convict himself and intern for the outreach organization, Voices for Second Chances, Tyler has seen how structures and barriers in the prison cycle contribute to a crippling cycle of recidivism. Tyler attests, “Right now it is really hard to get documents once you get released. They release you with nothing. You can’t get a job and you can’t get housing without these documents.” He believes that this is intentional and part of a larger institution that serves people with business and economic stakes in the prison system far above those it is supposed to reform.
Tyler wants to use his political voice as a way of advocating for people who have lost their own voices. In the fall he is going to be a speaker at a symposium for an organization called the D.C. Justice Lab, an advocacy group that works closely with his internship site on the issue of prison reform. By speaking there, he is getting intimately involved in the “work” of politics. His goal is to motivate people who might not know the depth of the issues in the prison system or are otherwise unmotivated to contribute their time, finances and political efforts toward the growing reform movement. He also hopes to build his skills and develop personal credibility in the political realm. If he can show leaders in Washington, D.C. that he could be useful to their missions, he thinks he could get his foot in the door to advocate for those being suppressed in America’s prisons.
Dr. Eitan Hersh describes the issue well in his book. Politics isn’t about canceling your neighbor for her outlandish political views on Twitter or reading news on what Kamala Harris’ shoes mean for the future of America, it’s about power. The fact that political campaigns and provocative news stories are being orchestrated more like reality TV should make us concerned about what we, the public, are demanding from politicians and the media. When politics becomes a hobby, politicians and news media have a vested interest in grabbing your attention. Politics gives us an identity and an opportunity to vent our anger and provocative political material makes us angrier. It’s a perfect cycle.
Politically active students like Sara and Tyler give me hope for our country in spite of all the political sensationalism. The next generation of D.C. professionals is getting invested in politics, changing minds and advocating for movements that matter to them. There is no denying that political involvement is costly. Even informed voting requires a lot of mental and physical effort to execute. However, these TFAS students have shown what an important impact political action can have on a community. If politics is for power, then we can be agents of power in shaping our country for the better.
Hersh, E. D. (2020). Politics is for power: How to move beyond political hobbyism, take action,
and make real change. Scribner.
Klein, E. (2020, March 11). Are you a “political hobbyist”? If so, you may be the problem. Vox.