“Consuming and participating in politics by obsessive news-following [and] by arguing and debating” is not politics, says Eitan Hersh in Politics Is for Power (Simon & Schuster ; $27). To binge on MSNBC, devour Fox News or constantly share one’s opinions with friends and family on social media or in phone calls, is “to satisfy our own emotional needs and intellectual curiosities” but in itself serves no “serious purpose.”
Hersh calls the trap political hobbyism: Instead of electoral engagement (canvassing, participating in meetings, etc.), citizens pay lots of attention to political comings-and-goings. By one survey, 83% of those who spend an hour or more daily on news consumption (TV, mobile devices, reading) spend no time on political activity. Nor does the majority ever act on a community problem. Hersh does not suggest that citizens abandon the news. Genuine activists are well-informed. However, it does not work in the opposite direction: News junkies are not active.
Genuine politics is when people volunteer in order to acquire power. They build relationships, win supporters and broker their power for some social improvement. Hersh, a young professor at Tufts University, is sympathetic toward students and other young adults who support causes. However, he supplies several cautions. Genuine politics might entail spirited protest, but protest in itself is not enough. Though one-off events appeal to young adults, genuine politics means a longer-term commitment to others.
Hersh’s term for shallow participation is slacktivism. This is any symbolic on-line activity or token action that conveys support but only fulfills an altruistic need. These shallow gestures put off the necessity to learn how to vote, how to canvass, how to build relationships. He furnishes fascinating studies about how wearing a button or T-shirt subjectively removes the obligation to do something.
Political hobbyism is not neutral; it “hinders the pursuit of political power.” It puts attention on entertainment and melodrama. Similarly, it favors “short-term emotional highs,” pushing away the often boring process of real social change. It also favors ideological struggles in which all manner of policies become moral convictions over which there can be no compromise. Both citizens and electoral officials buy into this made-for-TV culture.
Hersh profiles several competent organizers. They are people of empathy who know that whining and yelling only narrow the base. They have no set script but are open to dialogue with anyone. They do not campaign around policy issues so much as they are disciplined about winning and holding power. They have “generous hearts” and exhibit patience.
Hersh’s examples come from electoral politics. He does though apply his theory to the withering of religious organizations, labor unions and civic groups. The phrase spiritual but not religious can typify a hobbyist. Whereas the word religion means to bind together, the hobbyist occasionally tries out spiritual practices like yoga or solitary meditation.
Specialized Catholic Action (capital A) was a worldwide movement in 1940s and 1950s. Its key insight was that faith formation must include action. Discussion groups, theology on tap speakers in the parish hall and Scripture reflection in the bulletin are fine. But adults do not grow in wisdom without action. The Catholic Action method was summarized in the slogan: observe, judge act. In particular Catholic Action said that young adults will be disposed toward Christianity through disciplined action around their concerns about work and relationships. It trained young adults to steadily organize like-to-like, student-to-student, worker-to-worker. Specialized Catholic Action used no gimmicks and promised no quick fix. It is difficult. Several formation programs (Renew, Christ Renews His Church, etc.) have solid content but nearly all stumble on the necessity for action.
Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a print newsletter about faith and work.