The Problem With Participatory Democracy Is the Participants

Eitan D. Hersh in the New York Times: “…For years, political scientists have studied how people vote, petition, donate, protest, align with parties and take in the news, and have asked what motivates these actions. The typical answers are civic duty and self-interest.

But civic duty and self-interest do not capture the ways that middle- and upper-class Americans are engaging in politics. Now it is the Facebooker who argues with friends of friends he does not know; the news consumer who spends hours watching cable; the repeat online petitioner who demands actions like impeaching the president; the news sharer willing to spread misinformation and rumor because it feels good; the data junkie who frantically toggles between horse races in suburban Georgia and horse races in Britain and France and horse races in sports (even literal horse races).

What is really motivating this behavior is hobbyism — the regular use of free time to engage in politics as a leisure activity. Political hobbyism is everywhere.

There are several reasons. For one, technology allows those interested in politics to gain specialized knowledge and engage in pleasing activities, like reinforcing their views with like-minded friends on Facebook. For another, our era of relative security (nearly a half-century without a conscripted military) has diminished the solemnity that accompanied politics in the past. Even in the serious moments since the 2016 election, political engagement for many people is characterized by forwarding the latest clip that embarrasses the other side, like videos of John McCain asking incomprehensible questions or Elizabeth Warren “destroying” Betsy DeVos.

Then there are the well-intentioned policy innovations over the years that were meant to make politics more open but in doing so exposed politics to hobbyists: participatory primaries, ballot initiatives, open-data policies, even campaign contribution limits. The contribution rules that are now in place favor the independent vanity projects of wealthy egomaniacs instead of allowing parties to raise money and build durable local support.

The result of this is political engagement that takes the form of partisan fandom, the seeking of cheap thrills, and amateurs trying their hand at a game — the billionaire funding “super PACs” all the way down to the everyday armchair quarterback who professes that the path to political victory is through ideological purity. (In the face of a diverse and moderate country, the demand for ideological purity itself can be a symptom of hobbyism: If politics is a sport and the stakes are no higher, why not demand ideological purity if it feels good?)….

What, exactly, is wrong with political hobbyism? We live in a democracy, after all. Aren’t we supposed to participate? Political hobbyism might not be so bad if it complemented mundane but important forms of participation. The problem is that hobbyism is replacing other forms of participation, like local organizing, supporting party organizations, neighbor-to-neighbor persuasion, even voting in midterm elections — the 2014 midterms had the lowest level of voter participation in over 70 years.

The Democratic Party, the party that embraces “engagement,” is in atrophy in state legislatures across the country. Perhaps this is because state-level political participation needs to be motivated by civic duty; it is not entertaining enough to pique the interest of hobbyists. The party of Hollywood celebrities also struggles to energize its supporters to vote. Maybe it is because when politics is something one does for fun rather than out of a profound moral obligation, the citizen who does not find it fun has no reason to engage. The important parts of politics for the average citizen simply may not be enjoyable….

An unqualified embrace of engagement, without leaders channeling activists toward clear goals, yields the spinning of wheels of hobbyism.

Democrats should know that an unending string of activities intended for instant gratification does not amount to much in political power. What they should ask is whether their emotions and energy are contributing to a behind-the-scenes effort to build local support across the country or whether they are merely a hollow, self-gratifying manifestation of the new political hobbyism….(More)”