THERE IS AN old joke about a man named Sid who keeps bees as a hobby. One day, Sid is telling his friend Bill about beekeeping, and Bill asks if he can see the bees. Sid walks to his freezer and pulls out a jar filled with hundreds of bees.
“Sid, all your bees are dead!”
“Well,” Sid shrugs, “it’s only a hobby.”
That’s the great thing about hobbies: The stakes are low. So what if Sid’s bees are dead? Who cares if my softball team loses? As a leisure specialist once put it, “No reputation is at stake. . . . Not even your dignity need suffer.’’
But something troubling has emerged on the American scene: Political activity has become a hobby. Voting, petitioning, partisan cheering, donating, watching infotainment news: The chief purpose for participating in politics seems to be self-gratification.
We are accustomed to thinking about participation in politics as motivated by civic duty or self-interest, not gratification. That has changed due to a combination of factors related to the nature of free time, the openness of the political process to mass participation, and a recent period of relative peace.
For Americans who are far enough removed from military service, economic hardship, and discrimination, political stakes can seem pretty low, especially in the quarter-century since the end of the Cold War when foreign threats seem less immediate. And so politics has become an erudite way to spend leisure time. But unlike softball or beekeeping, the stakes are actually high.
Donald Trump’s surprising rise sheds light on the perils of political hobbyism. It is clear that far too many people have been treating a high-stakes affair like a low-stakes one. That’s why they never saw Trump coming. When politics is treated like an unserious game, unserious candidates emerge.
TO UNDERSTAND POLITICAL hobbyism, consider three important forms of political participation: campaign contributing, activism, and voting. Today, all three activities are dominated by hobbyists.
Wealthy donors are pouring money into politics. Why? Our reflexive answer is so they can get something in return, like tax breaks or government contracts. But when political scientists study campaign finance, they mostly do not see self-interested donors. Most donations come from individuals, not corporate PACs. Most of these individuals (97 percent) give to only one party, which is not a savvy investment model for self-serving contributors. And donation patterns suggest that donors are less motivated by ideology than by pure partisanship.
So what are donors buying? Not policy, but time with their celebrity crushes. Donors want to attend cocktail parties, pose in photographs, and golf with candidates. They want to socialize with other donors. They want the candidates to solicit their advice. They want to be friends with their favored politicians.
Would a wealthy person really contribute thousands of dollars just for self-gratification? Yes, actually, the rich spend money to gratify themselves in ways that seem unfathomable to the rest of us. Politics is just one of those ways.
Here’s an example: Journalist Matea Gold recently noticed that wealthy donors have been traveling around the country to attend the presidential debates in person. The political parties were saving them seats. Why are donors traveling to watch the debates live? Because they are groupies. Republican donor Foster Friess told Gold, “It’s the same thing as going to a football game. If you’re in the crowd, you can hear the cheers, unfiltered by microphones. The chemistry is so much more exciting.’’ For the avid and wealthy hobbyist, a few thousand dollars is a small price to pay for a good show.
NEXT, CONSIDER ACTIVISM, a form of participation open to nonwealthy hobbyists. When a presidential campaign season is in high gear, millions of people engage. During the 2008 presidential contest, for instance, more than 13 million Obama supporters provided the campaign with their e-mail addresses, more than 3 million donated, and more than 2 million volunteered.
Obama’s campaign organization hoped it could channel this grass-roots energy into policy advocacy. Thus, the campaign morphed into Organizing for America, a group positioned to push the administration’s policy agenda through grass-roots mobilization.
It didn’t work.
The problem is that policy advocacy is much less fun than campaigning. Campaigning involves competition. Policy involves compromise.
In 2009, when Organizing for America began mobilizing support for its first big issue, the Affordable Care Act, only a fraction of campaign supporters took action. The organization tried to get supporters to town hall meetings where conservatives were a dominant presence. But the millions of campaign enthusiasts largely disengaged, even in the first year of Obama’s administration and even on his signature issue.
The demise of Organizing for America (and its reboot after the 2012 election, Organizing for Action) is hardly surprising. For most hobbyists, governing is simply less gratifying than campaigning. Measured by Google searches, almost nobody is interested in “Organizing for America’’ or “Organizing for Action” anymore, and they haven’t been for a while. Organizing for Obama? Fun. Organizing for Action? Meh.
Consider another example of hobbyist activism: online petitions, like those sent to the White House. Over 1,800 petitions (signed by 13 million individuals) were submitted in the first 20 months of the White House’s online petition program, which launched in 2011. Only 5 percent of these petitions addressed issues like health care, public education, taxation, paid parental leave — big issues that social scientists call redistributive. Most petitions either focused on minor issues (Recognize diaphragmatic hernia awareness day!) or addressed broad issues that were not directly related to economic well-being. Even when liberal groups like MoveOn.org and CREDO solicit petitions from their progressive base, economic issues are not particularly popular among petitioners. The most popular political petition that CREDO has ever circulated demanded funding for NPR.
Despite their enormous potential, online petitions are primarily tools for hobbyists. To hobbyists, large-scale economic issues are complicated and tiresome. And, frankly, these issues may not be a priority for hobbyists, whose lives are reasonably comfortable. They’d rather focus on issues that are gratifying and simple, or else just wait for the next exhilarating campaign season to begin.
THE FINAL ILLUSTRATION of political activity motivated by self-gratification is voting, or to be accurate, abstaining from voting. When Americans are asked, as Pew has done regularly over the years, whether they agree that “it’s my duty as a citizen to always vote,” about 90 percent agree. To put this in perspective, a greater proportion of survey respondents agreed there is a duty to always vote than agreed there is a duty for adult children to take care of their elderly parents (73 percent agreed, in a 2002 General Social Survey).
The lip service here is astonishing, considering that in the most recent federal election, 36 percent of eligible citizens cast a ballot, the lowest rate since 1942. When the census asked nonvoters why they did not vote, most (62 percent) said they were too busy, not interested, forgot, or were out of town (even though out-of-town voters can typically cast absentee ballots). For the majority of non-voters, voting is not something that obligates them. They just are not interested. It isn’t gratifying.
Sociologists theorize that people choose hobbies to provide a cathartic release from the pressures of work. According to Steven Gelber, white-collar professionals tend to choose hobbies that call upon skills similar to those they use at work, but in a low-pressure setting. For example, surgeons may favor hobbies like model shipbuilding, which involves intricate handwork but without the pressure of performing a quadruple bypass.
For someone who has a taste for debate, law, and history, politics can be something exciting to dabble in. A person who stakes out an aggressive position on an issue without knowing the facts might get fired at work but faces no serious consequences if engaged in political debate. This is a core reason why politics can be enjoyable. This is the catharsis. And it represents the first danger of political hobbyism: Participants act as if they are engaged in a low-stakes enterprise when in fact the opposite is true.
The stakes can seem low for a number of reasons. An individual’s contribution is almost always nonpivotal. Policy tends to change very slowly, so it is difficult to know how mass participation translates into concrete policy movement. Perhaps most importantly, for many engaged citizens, election outcomes will not affect them in life-and-death ways.
For citizens who are socially and financially comfortable, the risks seem low. They have a safety net. They do not fear military conscription. Their lives are stable. And so they do not approach politics with the solemnity appropriate for a high-stakes undertaking. Acting as if the stakes are low when they are high can be exceedingly dangerous.
Political hobbyism is also primarily perilous because of its lack of obligation. Political participation not viewed as obligatory will lead to activities that are self-gratifying (campaigns!) but not to activities that are tedious (policy, state and local elections). If political participants act out of pleasure rather than obligation, then those who do not have an interest in politics will be even less likely to participate. They might say — without feeling shame —
A final danger of hobbyism is that for many it takes the form of a competition. Public spiritedness can take a backseat to partisanship when politics is treated as a game. In political hobbyism, there is no advantage in taking the high road or in compromise. The goal is to defeat your opponent.
POLITICAL HOBBYISM HAS an antidote in civic duty. Unlike a hobby, a duty is an obligation — sometimes enjoyable, but often not. The obligated person, after all, participates regardless of the personal enjoyment derived from the experience.
Duty-bound actions are also aimed at serving the common good. Legal scholar Edward Foley recently likened voting to the act of a fiduciary: “Each voter is charged with the responsibility of acting on behalf of society as a whole, present and future.’’ An aim to serve the common good is what distinguishes acts of duty from those of self-interest or gratification.
Acting for the common good is difficult, especially for hobbyists who may be distant from societal stresses. Living in relatively safe and prosperous circumstances, it may be hard to remember that one’s own well-being is tied to the stability of the political state. It may be hard to cultivate a fear of instability or empathy towards those who live with it. Such a fear can engender seriousness of purpose and actions taken in the interest of the general welfare.
How can we rediscover civic duty? An imminent threat to democracy like Donald Trump could rekindle the sense of duty among the hobbyists. But that might not work or it might not be long lasting.
One way to inspire duty among citizens whose lives have been comfortable is for them to regularly confront what uncomfortable looks like. One cannot act on behalf of the common interest if one does not really understand common struggles. Seeing common struggles is not gratifying. But duty is duty.
Duty can also be inspired through social pressure. People do not generally chastise one another for failing in their civic obligations or for taking political action aimed at narrow interests. But they should.
We all may need reminders to guide our political actions with a solemn tone and with devotion to the common good. Goading one’s peers into remembering their civic obligations is not pleasant.
But, after all, this is not a hobby. None of us should wish to be Sid the beekeeper, tending to a bunch of dead bees.Eitan Hersh is an assistant professor of political science at Yale University. He lives in Brookline.