Politics is for Power

by Eitan Hersh

Posted Apr 5, 2021

I am precisely the target audience for this book, someone who wants to be politically active and pretends that paying attention to the news and the latest polls is doing something. I haven't changed my ways yet, but knowing is half the battle... I hope.

Here is how Hersh defines 'political hobbyism':

a catchall phrase for consuming and participating in politics by obsessive news-following and online “slacktivism,” by feeling the need to offer a hot take for each daily political flare-up, by emoting and arguing and debating, almost all of this from behind screens or with earphones on.

I see myself and I don't like it. I went canvassing for the first time, for Bernie, about six months before reading this book, but it felt empty. I now understand why, and what would work better.

Here are the problems with political hobbyism.


First, we are making politics worse. Our collective treatment of politics as if it were a sport affects how politicians behave. They increasingly believe they benefit from feeding the red meat of outrage to their respective bases, constantly grandstanding for the chance that a video of themselves will go viral. In treating politics like a hobby, we have demanded they act that way.


Second, hobbyism takes us away from spending time working with others to acquire power. While we sit at home, people who seek political control are out winning over voters.

He goes on to give some great examples of what it means to work with others to acquire power, and how political organizing has changed over the last ~50 years. From changes in laws around patronage to political tribalism:

In 1964, the presidential candidates were Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater, who were unquestionably more extreme in their policy differences than Obama and Romney. Yet survey takers did not respond as if the stakes were as high. What changed? In part, what has changed is that Americans have started to treat political parties as they treat sports teams.

What works:

  • Listening to your neighbors
  • Building trust over the long term
  • Community service, e.g., day care and senior care
  • Bottom-up organizing

Bottom-up organizing, where the top of an organization provides resources and some guidance but doesn't micromanage each local group, feels the most important to me. The idea that a political campaign should provide canvassers and phone bankers with a script and talking points is intuitively appealing. It makes it easy to get volunteers started and does as much as possible to control the message. It also feels empty for both sides of the conversation, and it makes a real connection and persuasion impossible.

The opposite is 'deep canvassing':

[I]n deep canvassing, volunteers focus on being good listeners and on making a human connection to someone they might disagree with. They are emissaries from one party to another, looking for goodwill.

Which sounds hard, because it is.

A group of volunteers focused on a single mission is the other recommended approach. That has been working well for the right but not for the left:

Political hobbyism on the left also stands in sharp contrast to the most successful recent political movements, which have been on the right—the right-to-life movement, the gun rights movement—which were developed around chapter-based, local organizations with thousands of volunteers willing to roll up their sleeves and, slowly and steadily, achieve modest political goals: taking over political party committees, quietly seeding judicial offices, recruiting state legislative candidates—activities that seem beneath the political hobbyist who is strictly infatuated with national political drama.

I would love to see a progressive organization (and I imagine DSA and probably others are doing some or most of this already) providing emergency day care and senior care and seasonal community support, like a spring bike tune-up meetup. The message is: "We want this for everyone and we want the government to help so that these services are accessible to all. Until then, we are going to use our modest resources to provide as much as we can. And, by the way, here is who you should vote for in local, state, and federal elections so that this happens sooner."

I have a sense that the best way that progressives can create the kind of "chapter-based, local organizations" that make a real difference is through a growth in union membership.

In 2017, while trying to figure out how to get a cannabis company started and do the basics like open a bank account, we found out the UFCW in California would help all new cannabis companies get a bank account at some affiliated credit union if we signed a Neutrality and Card Check Agreement. That agreement stated that we would not oppose or interfere with any organizing effort.

I wanted to do it. I thought that we would run the kind of operation where it wouldn't be a big deal either way, a place that supported its employees regardless of the threat of a strike. I supported unions in a theoretical, political-hobbyist way. Our advisors told us that fundraising would be much more difficult and it would generally make operating the company more difficult for us.

We didn't do it. We never got to the point of operations with our own facility where it mattered (my teammates moved on to operate from within a client's site and organization while I stayed in Seattle). I regret it anyway. I want unions to gain power and am finding reasons for optimism.