Paper of the Week: Hersh on Politics as a Hobby

In this weekly blog feature, I’m going to share an academic paper I admire and want to explore. This won’t be a roundup of the latest findings; as I’ll discuss at some point, I don’t know whether to trust most new empirical research. Instead, I’ll mostly write about old papers whose ideas still seem fresh and under-appreciated. I expect the papers will be equally distributed between sociology, economics, political science, and law.

In direct contradiction of the above, I’d like to start this week with a brand-new paper that hasn’t even been published yet: “Political Hobbyism: A Theory of Mass Behavior” by Eitan Hersh. This paper seems to be the core of an argument that Hersh is making in several empirical projects and plans to turn into a book.

The argument is that for many Americans, political participation is not a duty, nor is it the pursuit of self interest, but it is a hobby. Hersh thinks that viewing politics as a hobby helps explain many well-known findings, such as why people don’t vote in local elections. Moreover, this is a warning that mass political hobbyism may have contributed to our current political crisis. I loved this framing sentence: “The argument can be viewed as complementary to Kramer’s (2016) The Politics of Resentment, a book that explains the political engagement of low-SES, rural Americans during the Obama years. In my study, I especially aim to capture the politics of contentment, how a comfortable class of citizens has been engaging in politics as hobbyists.”

At a definitional level, hobbyism is the pursuit of pleasure or fun through political participation. This is distinct from other motives often used in political science models like self-interest or civic duty. Of course, it’s perfectly consistent with hobbyism to believe you are pursuing your self interest or civic idealism through your politics. But Hersh says we should be able to observe different behavior from hobbyists compared to the other rationales.

In particular, he suggests we compare political activities people say they do to activities they say they enjoy. For instance, when asked if they enjoy attending political meetings or rallies, about 10% of respondents say yes. When another set of respondents are asked if they actually participate in these activities, 10% say yes as well. If people were actually behaving out of self-interest or civic duty–or anything other than pure consumption value–we would not expect such a tight relationship between enjoyment and action.

There is other empirical evidence for hobbyism. In another experiment, Hersh finds that high-dollar donors say they would be nearly as willing to buy a seat at an event with a famous politician if the money went to a caterer as they would if the money actually supported the candidate or party. In a third experiment, people claim they would disapprove of their child marrying a member of the opposing party at the same rate they would oppose of him or her marrying a fan of a rival sports team. Hersh interprets this to mean people are exaggerating their commitments to both parties and teams. The point is that politics is not particularly special in encouraging attachments to games where there are winners and losers. Indeed, Hersh gets good mileage out of the sports metaphor. He compares low voter turnout in primaries and local elections to the perfectly intuitive pattern where far more people watch the Super Bowl than Week 8 of the NFL season. There might be nothing uniquely political about why turnout is low.

Has politics always been a hobby? Hersh doesn’t think so. He argues that there are several distinctive features of our time encouraging political hobbyism. First, people have more leisure time including spare moments at work suitable for checking political news and posting on social media. Second, the stakes have not felt high–at least for relatively affluent Americans–in recent decades. Certainly not compared to the Depression, World War II, or Cold War eras when political participation was dominated by the sense of imminent threats. Third, politics in the Internet era is relatively open to amateur participation. It’s an easy hobby to pick up.

Hersh makes an especially interesting argument about who is most likely to take up politics as a hobby. In general, hobbies can be compensatory–requiring skills very different from your day job–or cathartic, requiring the same skills as your day job but with lower stakes and easier rewards. Hersh thinks politics serves mainly as a cathartic hobby for white-collar types who work with words and ideas. “A person who takes a strong position without knowing the facts could be fired in a professional setting but faces no real consequences if engaged in political hobbyism. This is a core reason why politics can be enjoyable.”

If you want to increase political participation, you might read this paper and think the answer is to embrace hobbyism and attract more people to the game. Hersh is pessimistic about increasing interest in politics in general. He cites the research of Markus Prior, who finds that “political interest is extraordinarily stable over time, within individuals and within countries.” It does not rise around elections; rather it seems to be a disposition adopted early in one’s life.

Moreover, hobbyism seems like a dangerous way to motivate our interest in politics. It lowers the stakes. It severs repercussions from actions. There’s no obligation to do the tedious work of showing up. Hersh notes a parallel to research on religious organization, where “communities typically are stronger where religions are stricter and more demanding of adherents’ time.” It seems plausible to me that political hobbyism is actual worse than political apathy because the natural human impulse to form teams and defeat enemies encourages polarization.

Fortunately, I don’t believe that hobbyism is the only way to motivate interest in politics. I plan to read Prior’s forthcoming book on political interest, but I think there is plenty of historical evidence for people adopting self-interested politics even if they didn’t grow up as political enthusiasts. Labor movements seem like a classic example, whether in the early 2oth century under Eugene Debs or the contemporary Fight for $15 campaign. Such self-interested approaches to politics might just take more threatening, crisis-like conditions than we have appreciated.

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