How To Actually Make a Difference Many Americans feel an obligation to keep up with political news. But maybe we should be focusing our energies elsewhere. Political scientist Eitan Hersh says there's been a rise in "political hobbyism" in the United States. We treat politics like entertainment, following the latest updates like we follow our favorite sports teams. Instead, he says, we should think of politics as a way to acquire power and persuade our neighbors to back the issues we support.
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Passion Isn't Enough: The Rise Of 'Political Hobbyism' in the United States

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Passion Isn't Enough: The Rise Of 'Political Hobbyism' in the United States

Passion Isn't Enough: The Rise Of 'Political Hobbyism' in the United States

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SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:

From NPR, this HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. When Eitan Hersh was growing up, newspapers were a central part of the family's daily routine. If you were a member of the household, you kept up with the news.

EITAN HERSH: My parents raised me and my siblings in a politically engaged environment - at least I thought so. You know, we always were - we knew what was going on in the news. The newspaper was delivered to our home.

VEDANTAM: After Eitan went off to college, his father kept reading, listening to the radio, staying up to speed. And then a few years ago, Eitan learned that his dad had developed a new habit. He would lie on his bed at night and watch cable news.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: "OutFront" next, breaking news - Trump's tantrum, a jaw-dropping six-page rant...

VEDANTAM: Eitan, now a political scientist, found this puzzling.

HERSH: I've never really personally, like, gotten into cable news. It's never been something I've enjoyed. I asked him why he was doing it, and he said, you know, it's our duty to be informed. And I said to him, yeah, but you already are informed. You know, you've already read the newspaper. You've already listened to all the radio. What possibly more could you be getting from this?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HERSH: I think in the end, it was pretty clear that he just likes politics. A lot of people like politics. And to decompress at night, you know, more than the Food Network, the Kardashians, whatever else is on TV, he likes watching cable news.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Millions of Americans are like Eitan's dad. They eagerly follow television personalities and the ups and downs of the latest scandal in Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Nearly a month after the House passed two...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: That is all including...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: The story seems to arouse the TV star Kim Kardashian West...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Right now...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: Good evening, Rachel...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: CNN tonight, Don Lemon starts now...

VEDANTAM: They know who testified last week on Capitol Hill.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #8: Tense moments in the room between Democrats and Republicans...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #9: How is that...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #10: If this is not impeachable conduct...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #11: ...Within the White House.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #10: ...What is?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #12: Shake is...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #13: What you heard...

VEDANTAM: And what the rumor mills are saying about who's in and who's out at the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #14: National Security Adviser Michael Flynn has resigned after less than a month...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #15: Steve Bannon is officially out at the White House.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #16: And John Bolton is out...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #17: He wasn't in the government. He wasn't in the FBI. Gentlemen, I have to jump in here. I love this debate here, but we have to go to a short break. After that short break, we'll continue our discussion on still more Washington scandals.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: If you ask them why they follow the news so closely, they will tell you what Eitan's father told him. It's an act of civic virtue to stay informed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Eitan Hersh is skeptical, and he has the data to prove it. He argues provocatively that what his dad is doing isn't really about politics or policy or elections. It's really just about his dad, what feels right to him.

HERSH: It seems to me that the way that people are doing politics is much more similar to a hobby than to what I think of with politics, which is, you know, acquiring power.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Today, we look at a strange twist of modern politics in the United States. We live in a 24/7 cycle of political news that saturates every corner of our culture. It seems like this has led to increased engagement in politics, but Eitan Hersh says that engagement with politics for many of us has actually become more shallow. As a result, he says, our democracy from the workings of city government to the battle for the presidency is increasingly distant from the actual needs of citizens.

The paradox of our passion for politics - this week on HIDDEN BRAIN.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Eitan Hersh is a political scientist at Tufts University. He studies voting, elections and how we participate in politics. In his book, "Politics Is For Power," Eitan makes the case that millions of Americans are engaging in politics in ways that are emotionally satisfying but ultimately self-defeating.

HERSH: They're there to serve their own emotional and intellectual needs. They're not trying to move anyone. They're not trying to empower anything. They're really just trying to learn and engage in a pretty frivolous way.

VEDANTAM: So I would imagine that a lot of people listening to you would disagree with your assessment of them. I think a lot of people would say I derive no entertainment from the shenanigans of the Republicans or the intransigence of the Democrats. In fact, I feel exhausted and dispirited by the state of our politics all the time.

HERSH: I think that's right. Some people probably would agree that, yeah, you know, being on Twitter all the time or sharing a meme about some silly news story is entertainment. But the feelings that they bring to politics are much deeper. They care, and they feel hurt that politics isn't going the way they want it. And they feel joy when politics does go the way they want it. The thing is that what they're actually doing is not participating themselves in any active way. They're really just following the news. They're following the ups and downs of a presidential primary cycle or the Mueller report or the impeachment hearings. And so they, themselves, are not participating.

VEDANTAM: You introduce a word that I hadn't actually heard in the context of politics. You said that people are really pursuing a hobby. They're in it for the feels, the thrill of debate, scoring points. And you call these people hobbyists. What do you mean by the term?

HERSH: Yeah. So, you know, I was kind of reading through some of the sociology literature on hobbies. And what are hobbies? They are things that are people doing either to - they're learning facts. They learn facts about history. They learn facts about birds, whatever they want or they're engaging in collecting materials. They're - or they're you know, engaged in kind of crafts. And it seemed to me that the way that people are doing politics is much more similar to a hobby than to what I think of with politics, which is, you know, acquiring power. So they will learn a lot of facts and talk about those facts. They will participate in a kind of craft. Like, they'll go online and share memes, have a discussion, very similar to how sports fans, you know, listen to sports radio. They'll talk about the gossip of, you know, what this quarterback or that quarterback is doing. And that's sort of the end of it.

In politics, I think that's exactly what people are doing, too. If we define political participation as a form of engagement, where you are trying to move public policy or electoral politics in a direction you care about - you know, you have your one vote and you're convincing another person to vote the way you want or to advocate the way you want - that really doesn't describe the behavior of what most people are doing when they're doing politics. It looks much more like what they're doing is similar to a sports fanatic engaged in sports or a foodie watching food shows, reading restaurant reviews. It seems much more in that category of life than in the category of power acquisition.

VEDANTAM: So when I think about a hobby or I think about being a sports fan, I think about people who derive, you know, great satisfaction or great frustration from what's happening. They engage in it passionately. But ultimately, they'd have to acknowledge that their involvement has little consequence.

HERSH: That's right. If they wanted to actually participate in politics seriously, they would go about this all differently. Instead of hating the other side, instead of hating a random person who says they're Republican or says they're Democrat, they would say, hmm, is this a neighbor that I can convince to move in my direction? And when we talk to organizers who are out every day in the trenches trying to convince other people to come along with them, they don't hate the other side. It's, like, totally the wrong frame of reference for them. They are thinking about, how do I move a person? There might be a person on the other side who says they're Republican and I'm a Democrat or says they're a Democrat and I'm a Republican.

And my first reaction is they believe all these things I think are despicable. But my second reaction, if I really care about moving them, is what do they care about that I care about that I can leverage to move them in my direction? And in sports fandom and in the kind of shallow way that people engage in partisan fandom, that second step is never made. There's never a goal to convince a Yankee fan to come to the Red Sox. It doesn't matter. And if you're online or, you know, only talking about politics to the people who are exactly like you, there's no point of thinking of a person on the other political party as someone you need to convince of anything. You don't. You don't need to convince them of anything because you're not doing anything.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: And if you're a Red Sox fan, of course, you are deriving satisfaction precisely from the camaraderie you have with like-minded people as opposed to reaching out to people who might actually be outside the echo chamber.

HERSH: That's right. I love being a Red Sox fan. And, you know, as I say in the book, I've - I live right near Fenway Park. I've gone to Fenway Park and taken my children there. And the - you know, the whole park at Fenway will still chant Yankees suck, Yankees suck over and over again. They've done it for decades now. And it's all kind of a joke because the stakes are low. We don't really hate those people who are the Yankees fans or the Yankees players. It's a game. And it's fun to be part of it for a lot of people.

VEDANTAM: So what explains the fact that in politics people don't think of it as being fun? I mean, if you're a Democrat and you think Republicans are terrible or you're a Republican and you think Democrats are terrible, you don't think of it as a game. You think of it as being deadly serious. Is that political hobbyism, too?

HERSH: What's political hobbyism is not whether you think it's deadly serious or not. It's whether the emotion is the end in itself or a means to an end. So in short-cut politics, in hobbyism, emotion is the goal. It makes you feel connected to something without doing anything yourself. It makes me feel I am part of this emotional high or I am part of this sad point, this low point even though I'm not doing anything. I'm just following it. But the emotion is the connection. And, of course, we have a whole media apparatus and social media apparatus to make us feel those emotions. But in real politics, anger, righteous anger and emotion, are something you leverage into action. If there's no second step there, you might feel like you're feeling political and partisan thoughts, but you're not channeling them effectively into anything else.

VEDANTAM: So I want to examine your larger evidence for these claims and I want to start with a revealing story you tell about two elections in your home state of Massachusetts. The first was in 2008, and it featured Barack Obama running for president. And the second, 14 months later, featured a special election for a Senate seat that had big implications for the balance of power in the Senate. Tell me what happened in those two races.

HERSH: So in 2008, in Massachusetts - Massachusetts is a blue state. There was never going to be a question of who was going to win the election between Barack Obama and John McCain. Nevertheless, a lot of people reacted and a lot of people voted.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #18: We project that Senator Obama will carry the state of Massachusetts...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HERSH: A very high turnout in Massachusetts, like in the rest of the country, for this presidential election. That in Massachusetts wasn't a close call. A few months later, the Democrats have control of the House. They have control of the Senate with 60 seats, which was important for the filibuster. And they have control of the White House. But now it's not so exciting. And there's a Senate race that comes, a special Senate race to replace the seat that Ted Kennedy held. He passed away. And the seat was between Scott Brown, a Republican, and Martha Coakley, a Democrat. Now, here, Massachusetts had a chance to really leverage its excitement for voting for something that really mattered. Now, Massachusetts really mattered because this turned out to be a close election and the Democrats control of 60 seats in the Senate was on the line. What happened?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #19: Democrats hold a 3-1 advantage over Republicans in the state. But the GOP candidate, Scott Brown, has waged an energetic campaign and he's polling well against the Democrat, Attorney General Martha Coakley.

HERSH: From the not close, the - you know, from the landslide Massachusetts election for Barack Obama to the really important Senate election, turnout dropped precipitously. And it especially dropped in highly Democratic areas. So when there was really a moment for Democrats in Massachusetts to say, you know what? Even though politics right now maybe is down for the Democrats, maybe the candidate for our Senate seat is not as exciting as Barack Obama, we're going to come through because we really care about holding power. Instead, they sat at home.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCOTT BROWN: I thank the people of Massachusetts for electing me as your next United States senator.

(CHEERING)

HERSH: And Scott Brown won that election. And so if you're only willing to vote when there's a celebrity or someone who really is drawing you in to the excitement, then, you know, you're going to not do so well in the downtimes when the chips are down for your party, you know, the candidates aren't as exciting, but the policy matters just as much.

VEDANTAM: There's another story you tell about Massachusetts, and this one took place in 2019. Democrats asked students to go up to New Hampshire to canvass or even just to canvass locally. And on another occasion, the students were asked if they wanted to take a road trip to meet Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg. What happened in each case?

HERSH: Yeah. So the Democrats at my college campus at Tufts, they do some events, you know, on campus, but they try really hard to get students to come with them to canvass in New Hampshire. And the students told them, you know, it's just too far away. We can't go to New Hampshire. We have classes. We have stuff to do. And so in the 2018 election, they never got more than seven students to get in the car to New Hampshire, which, by the way, is, like, an hour away, to canvass. And then the story goes that there was a Pete Buttigieg event in Manchester, N.H. And so the student Dem said, OK, well, you know, does they want to come up to Manchester to meet Pete Buttigieg? We can, you know, take a selfie with him, post it on Instagram. And the student Democratic group could not find enough cars to accommodate all of the Tufts students who wanted to go and take a selfie with Pete Buttigieg.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: So perhaps the most elementary difference between those who think of politics as a means to power, as a means to affect policy, and those who think of it as an entertaining diversion is whether people show up to vote. I understand that you've run surveys where you ask people whether they voted and then you compare what they tell you to records showing whether they actually voted. What do you find?

HERSH: So a lot of people, like almost half sometimes of confirmed non-voters - that is, people who the public record shows they did not vote - about half of them sometimes say they voted even when they didn't. And when a colleague and I tried to figure out who are the kinds of people that lie about voting, we discovered essentially college-educated news followers lie a lot. When they don't vote, they say they voted anyway.

VEDANTAM: Another piece of evidence you have about the rise of political hobbyism is a decline in interest in any election that is not about national issues or national candidates. Can you talk about this for a moment? How has interest in local elections, like mayoral races, for example - how has that changed in recent years even as people have paid increasingly close attention to what's happening on the national stage?

HERSH: So a big part of that story has got to be the media, right? The media landscape is dramatically different. There's a lot fewer resources in local news in local newspapers, declining rates of engagement with even TV, you know, local news. And there's a question about whether that's - you know, how - the supply-and-demand chain or the cause-and-effect relationship between interest in local news and the availability of local news. But what's happened is that we have very, very few people voting locally and taking interest in what's happening in state and local politics.

And so you have people say on the left who say, I really care about the environment or I really care about racial equality, but I'm not going to pay attention to the ways my state or city might work on those issues. I'm not going to apply any pressure to my state legislator to work on those issues because what's happening at the state and local level's kind of boring. And it's just not as exciting as President Trump's tweets. And on the right, you see the same thing but not as much. On the left, there's been this long history of particularly the kind of - the well-educated wing of the Democratic Party pooh-poohing what's happening at the state and local levels - nah, all the interesting stuff's got to be the national stuff.

VEDANTAM: So you're pointing to something really interesting, which is that political hobbyists might be found in all parties, but there are important differences between the parties and - but also on other fronts. You'll find that political hobbyists are not distributed equally across a spectrum between men and women or between the rich and poor. Can you talk about those differences for a moment?

HERSH: Sure. So, first of all, when you look at groups on both parties or particularly on the left that are involved in community organizing, that are involved in party committees and groups, you see it's mostly women. If you go to any of the indivisible groups which are popped up since the Trump election, it's about two-thirds women. But when you are online or you survey people about how interested they are in politics, how many facts they know about politics, that's predominantly men. You also see this phenomenon that - you know, if you look at - like, if you - you know, when I survey people and say, how much time are you spending on politics, you see the most time people are spending on politics is among college-educated white men. And part of the story there is a racial story that - like, African-Americans and Latinos in the Democratic Party are spending less time, say, thinking, reading about politics but much more time engaged in community organizations than college-educated white liberals. And the story behind that is about how satisfied you are with the status quo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HERSH: And the folks who were pretty satisfied with the status quo talked a lot about important things, civil rights and so forth, but were much less engaged in empowerment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: When we come back - the powerful implications of political hobbyism on both the left and the right.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. I'm talking today with political scientist Eitan Hersh about the millions of Americans who engage in politics as a form of self-expression rather than as a mechanism for real change. Eitan says there is one central difference between hobbyists and people who are serious about getting stuff done. The serious people are less interested in how they feel and more interested in acquiring and using power. Eitan met a man who was serious about that kind of power in the Boston area. He was known locally as the Ukrainian boss.

HERSH: So this man was a mystery to me. Someone told me there was this elderly man living in this neighborhood of Boston called Brighton, who was somehow a boss, that he controlled a thousand votes. And I really wanted to figure out, like, who was this person? How'd he control a thousand votes? And so I asked if I could meet him. This man, whose name is Naakh, he came to the United States from the former USSR, from Ukraine, and he was a leader in a retirement community of mostly older Russian Jews in this neighborhood in Brighton. He was, like, one of the - you know, he organized community events. But in the '90s, Congress and President Clinton passed a welfare reform bill. And in the original law, legal immigrants, including those living in old-age homes, were going to be turned away from benefits like food stamps or disability. And this was a major problem because for the folks living in Naakh's building and for many retired communities throughout the country, this was the main source of their food. And so there was panic.

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HERSH: And Naakh, as the community leader, he started to advocate a little bit, going on radio, doing some interviews, but he and his wife started to try to get as many people citizenship as quickly as they can. So a lot of these people were eligible for citizenship, but their English wasn't great. They had to practice for this, you know, 20 questions on a test about the bill rights and stuff like that. They had to be able to write a sentence, talk to someone. And so Naakh and his wife trained all these people to take the citizenship test, and in a couple years, they got 300 of their neighbors citizenship.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I hereby declare...

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: I hereby declare...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: ...On oath...

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: ...On oath...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: ...That I absolutely...

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: ...That I absolutely...

HERSH: Soon after, he decided to leverage his central point in this community for politics. He learned that, you know, someone who's in a state legislative office or on the city council can do a lot for this community who care about, you know, certain policies like immigration. But they also care about transportation issues, you know, getting the snow shoveled to their building. And so Naakh and his so-called lieutenants started filling out a sample ballot. You know, they would get a sample ballot. They would mark who they thought the community should vote for. They'd make photocopies, and they'd hand it out in their building. The building has about a thousand people in it. The precinct voting booths are actually in the building itself. And so Naakh and his lieutenants started getting out the vote among people in their building. And pretty soon, you could see this in the public records of turnout. Naakh's precinct would have two or three times the voting rates of all the neighboring precincts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HERSH: You start seeing politicians paying attention to him, calling him on his birthday, walking him to the grocery store. And, like, nobody knows about this guy, right? I mean, no one in Boston outside of the political establishment and outside of his community knows about him. But to his own community, he's a hero.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HERSH: Basically, he and his wife did decades of favors for people in their community and were really nice people. They built a lot of trust and with that trust came the opportunity to influence people's votes.

VEDANTAM: In other words, what he was providing to his community was really a form of service. It was less about saying here's a set of values or ideological issues that I care about. It's saying, you know, there's a very humble way of thinking about leadership, which is you care about the potholes. I care about the potholes. You care about the snow being shoveled. I care about the snow being shoveled. And it's less about Republican versus Democrat. It's less about big issues. It's much more - I mean, I suppose it's much more transactional. It's much more parochial and less ideological.

HERSH: That's right. But even if you cared about those ideological issues mainly, even if you did, the path to getting people to care about what you care about is still Naakh's path. That is, if you wanted to move people on climate change but it's hard to explain climate change or you want to move people on, you know, a nationalized health care but it's really hard to explain those details, most people are not going to want to talk to you about that. But if you're kind to them and you take them seriously and you serve their more immediate needs, then when an election comes, even, by the way, when there's not a celebrity on the ballot, they say, oh, I'll vote your way because you, Naakh, the Ukrainian boss, I respect you. And you're telling me this thing to do, and I'll do it because maybe you know more about this than I do or, you know, maybe I should just go along with you because you've done so many nice things for me. So whether your goals are just fixing potholes or your goals are, you know, international climate change, the methods are very similar.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: The Ukrainian boss acquired power by providing basic services - food stamps, snow shoveling, help with a citizenship test. By contrast, political hobbyists often get involved when politics is about what Eitan calls postmaterialist issues. Take the kinds of petitions that people sign.

HERSH: A colleague of mine, Brian Schaffner, and I started looking in to this petition program that the Obama administration instituted early on in his administration. The idea was on the White House website, you could collect digital signatures. And if you got enough signatures, the White House would respond to you, and you could download the data on this. And so Brian Schaffner and I would download the data, and we started looking at, you know, what kind of petitions were being signed, how many people were signing them. And we discovered something that really amazes me still, which is that most of them were about really small and mostly frivolous things. Some of them were just jokes - you know, the U.S. should build a Death Star - but most then we're not like that. They were just about smaller issues - a problem of puppy mills or regulating of premium cigars, stuff that, you know, is important but doesn't affect the kind of - you know, the general welfare of someone who's struggling to get by. And so political scientists for a long time have noticed a shift in politics away from bread-and-butter issues, away from people getting food on their table and having good jobs and all that and towards what these are called - you know, postmaterialist issues, issues that are not about economic welfare or, you know, education, health but this other stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: So I want to spend a little time talking about the role of money in politics and the relationship between money and politics and the rise of what you call hobbyism. You once conducted a survey where you asked people if they'd be willing to make a donation. I think it was a thousand dollars to attend a dinner with a prominent leader. And some people were told the money would go to fund a political campaign, but others were told the money would go to an event management company and, in fact, would have no bearing whatsoever, no impact on policy or electoral politics. What did you find?

HERSH: In that survey, we found that almost as many people would give a thousand dollars to have a dinner with a politician even if the money wasn't going to the party. That is, even though in that situation the money wouldn't be seen by the politician as, like - as something that they should reciprocate with favors, even if it didn't serve the interests of political party or campaign, people were just willing to give money, so they said, to, you know, attend the dinner. And this is consistent with this general view of hobbyists in donations. You know, there was just this story in the presidential primary about Pete Buttigieg hosting an event at a wine cave. And there's events like this all over the place, you know, exclusive events for rich donors. And the question is, are those donors giving because they want to go to an exclusive political event where they can talk about politics and take a selfie just in the way that my students wanted to go to New Hampshire to take a selfie with Pete Buttigieg? Or are they doing it to actually serve a political goal? And, of course, the answer is it's both. But this survey experiment tried to allow us to say, well, OK, well, how much of it is just purely entertainment?

VEDANTAM: And the thesis then from this study is that some significant portion of these big-dollar donations are, in fact, tied to self-expression, of wanting to say, I'm getting a photograph with a presidential candidate, not so much that I want some specific outcome from that candidate.

HERSH: That's right.

VEDANTAM: So these are big-money donors. And as people hear what you said, they might say, all right, this tells me that small-money donations are really the way to go. Those are the donations that are untainted by political hobbyism. But unfortunately, you don't agree with that. And you describe what happened when Republican Congressman Joe Wilson interrupted a State of the Union speech by President Barack Obama. First of all, remind us what happened in that incident, what followed and what it tells us about small-money donations.

HERSH: Right. So Barack Obama was speaking before Congress about the health care law. And Congressman Wilson shouted at him from from the seat in the House of Representatives saying, you lie.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: Who are here illegally...

JOE WILSON: You lie.

(CROSSTALK)

HERSH: And, you know, it was a departure from the norms of kind of appropriate behavior in Congress. But soon after, in the days following, Congressman Wilson earned $2 million in online donations. And this is consistent with what we see across the board in donations, which is the way to get a lot of money, if you're a politician, from small-dollar donors is by being really provocative, by being outrageous, by doing the stuff that Donald Trump does. And it should be no surprise that the best small-dollar fundraiser, you know, it's not Bernie Sanders. It's not Elizabeth Warren. It's Donald Trump.

VEDANTAM: So the media, by your account, are both the beneficiary and the driver of political hobbyism. They encourage people to think of politics as a sport with daily winners and daily losers, different channels for fans of different teams. And you cite clips like this one from MSNBC's Rachel Maddow.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RACHEL MADDOW: CNN reports - and we have confirmed - that Manafort has now settled into sort of his forever home at FCI Loretto, which is the Federal Correctional Institute at Loretto, Pa., which is about halfway between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. Fun fact about FCI Loretto - used to be a Catholic seminary. Now it is home to Donald J. Trump presidential campaign chairman, inmate number 35207-016.

VEDANTAM: What does that clip tell you, Eitan?

HERSH: (Laughter) So I've learned exactly nothing from that clip, right? I've learned that Manafort went to jail. I didn't need to know his prison ID number. If I did, I could just look it up. It's Googleable. I didn't need to know about the details of the prison. But that sounded like Rachel Maddow was just taking me on some deep dive. There were numbers read out loud. There were facts given to me. But it doesn't in any way help me be a citizen. It doesn't help me learn how to use my role. It doesn't help me learn about how I can engage in the political process. So it's - what is it for? It's for entertainment.

VEDANTAM: So we've looked at how political hobbyism can affect voters and donors and the media. And you've hinted at this in the past, but it also affects the behavior of politicians. What kind of positions does hobbyism encourage politicians to stake out? And perhaps just as importantly, what kind of positions does it discourage them from exploring?

HERSH: So the main thing it does is it encourages politicians to respond to the short-term demands for instant gratification that the hobbyists want. If you know that the way to make a lot of money in small-dollar donations is to be very provocative, to get a viral video of yourself yelling at someone, then that's what you're going to do. That's what you're going to do in an impeachment hearing or a hearing for a Supreme Court justice nominee. That's what you're going to do on the debate stage. You know, we had this moment early in the presidential primary debate where Kamala Harris went after Joe Biden very harshly about this issue of bussing. And it turned out the policy differences between them weren't that big. It wasn't clear in the end what Senator Harris' position was. But immediately after that debate, Senator Harris raised a ton of money online for people who were excited to see her so-called destroy Joe Biden. And so if we, the hobbyists, give that incentive to politicians and that's how they're going to behave.

VEDANTAM: You mentioned Donald Trump a second ago. I want to play you a short clip of President Donald Trump speaking at a rally in North Carolina some time ago where he singled out a Democratic congresswoman, Representative Ilhan Omar.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Omar has a history of launching vicious anti-Semetic screeds.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Send her back. Send her back. Send her back. Send her back.

VEDANTAM: So when you listen to a clip like this, Eitan, you know, obviously the crowd is very energized by what President Trump is saying. But, of course, it also energizes people on the left who believe he's singling out a congresswoman, a woman of color, treating her especially badly. And in some ways, it's a textbook example of how one comment from the president can trigger hobbyism on both sides.

HERSH: That's right. First of all, that whole scene of the - President Trump going to a rally and all those people chanting against Representative Omar, responding to Trump singling her out, is really a classic example of the parallel between what's happening in politics and what happened in sports. I mean, it feels like a sports stadium saying Yankees suck. It feels like that. And it feels like it can be dangerous, just like we have around the world, sports arena chants like that turning into violence. It can happen in politics, too. And on the left, we also have, you know, maybe a day after that of Twitter responses. And, you know, instead of spending time on thinking about what a voter can do as a citizen or not just thinking about but taking some action, we're wasting all energy on both sides arguing about this thing.

VEDANTAM: I want you to read an excerpt from your book. I think this is on page 82 toward the bottom. It's the paragraph starting so there it is. In many ways, I think it sums up what we've been talking about the last half an hour or so.

HERSH: (Reading) So there it is. What news do political junkies demand? Outrage and gossip. Why? Because it's alluring. What news do we avoid? Local news. Why? It's boring. What do we think of our partisan opponents? We hate them. Do we really hate them? No, but politics is more fun if we root for a team and spew anger at the other side. It's easier to hate and dismiss the other side than to empathize and connect to them. When do we vote? When there's a spectacle. When do we click? When politics can be a frivolous distraction. When do we donate? When there's a cocktail party or a viral video. What are we doing? We're taking actions not to empower our political values but to satisfy our passion for the sport of politics.

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VEDANTAM: When we come back, even as many political hobbyists expand their energies on the latest outrage on Twitter, Eitan Hersh argues there are other people who are very serious about acquiring and wielding power. These are the people who end up shaping policy.

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VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Political scientist Eitan Hersh makes the case that many Americans engage in politics in the same way that sports fans engage with their teams, as a form of entertainment and self-expression. At the same time, people who are more serious about acquiring and wielding power are quietly going in a different direction. Eitan says that in 2018, the Ku Klux Klan made the rounds in North Carolina. The group wasn't talking to people about racial issues but something else entirely.

HERSH: Yeah. There were news reports that the Ku Klux Klan North Carolina was going around with fliers targeting opioid addicts and saying, do - you know, do you have an addiction? It's not your fault. And we here at the White Knights, the KKK, can help you through it.

VEDANTAM: Why would they do that?

HERSH: I think they would do that because they know their path to getting more recruits, to building political power, is not necessarily by telling people that they have this hateful ideology but by saying, hey, we're going to take care of people. And if no one else is taking good care of people who are suffering from addiction, then they're going to get some people on their side.

VEDANTAM: In many ways, it's actually the model of the Ukrainian boss, right? It's basically asking not how do I bring people over to where I am, or at least not asking that question at first, but really asking people, where are you? What are the issues that you care about? What's happening in your life? How can I be of help to you in dealing with these issues - and forming a connection with people and then bringing them over and say, you know, we obviously have this connection, you should support me on this thing that I care a lot about.

HERSH: That's right. I think everyone who cares about politics, even if you're, you know, the classic hobbyist, you want to help people. And the question is, how do you do it? And what you see across the political spectrum from the far right, you also see it across the world in groups, like, Hamas that have gained power in the Arab world. You see people saying, OK, we're not going to necessarily talk to you about ideology because, A, policy is complicated and ideology - you might not agree with us on everything. Instead, we're going to do is we're going to try to take care of you.

VEDANTAM: I remember a conversation I had with the anthropologist Scott Atran, and he has studied the rise of groups such as ISIS. And he told me that even though the group might have these really radical goals, the immediate practical thing they do is not talk about, you know, the destruction of infidels, but really they provide social services, educational services, a safety net, the very kind of practical, parochial issues that cause people to say, this is a group that really cares about us.

HERSH: That's right. And this is what political parties used to do back in the day when they were giving out, you know, free turkeys and vaccine shots and serving needs that the government eventually picked up some of those needs. But they were - the political parties were the ones doing it. You see that's what Naakh's doing, taking care of people.

VEDANTAM: You have an interesting suggestion for both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. And it's based on something that you noticed at Tufts University where you work, where your school offers faculty members backup child care. What was the idea?

HERSH: So the idea is that, you know, where I work at Tufts, if I ever can't - if - you know, I have three little kids, so this obviously really spoke to me, but this also is true if you have elderly parents that you're taking care of. If you ever need backup care, you can go to this website and Tufts will highly subsidize emergency backup care for something, like, 20 days a year. Now, I've never used this benefit personally, but it's important to me that it's there. It shows that the university cares about people who are taking care of their kids or taking care of elderly parents. And those who use it really do benefit from it.

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HERSH: My suggestion was imagining political parties doing things like that, providing emergency child care and emergency elder care, maybe contracting with one of these companies that do this. And by doing that, they're saying, hey, we have some big policy goals here. You know, maybe on the Democratic side, we really care about getting family leave passed in this country. And it might take us a little while to do that, but in the meantime, what we're going to do is we're going to show you as concretely as possible that we care about you and we care about these needs. And the way we're going to do that is instead of sending you, like, endless ads about how great we are, call us if you need a - if you have a problem. Tell us. Are you going through something where you need an emergency backup child care provider, elder care provider? Are you going through an addiction problem? Political parties should be at the forefront of solving these problems.

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VEDANTAM: And would this even be legal to do?

HERSH: So, yeah, it's complicated. It's going to be different state by state. But right now, there is a broad ability for parties to engage in what are called party-building activities. They're not allowed to trade favors or give assistance in exchange for a vote in election. But they're allowed to do stuff that promotes their party brand that says, hey, we're the Democratic Party or we're the Republican Party and we care about you and you should like our brand. And we can run a pancake breakfast. We can host a carnival. We can do a whole bunch of stuff that is for that purpose. This is within the historical role of what a political party is supposed to do.

VEDANTAM: So there are people who are clearly taking to heart the ideas that you're talking about in the book. You cite the example of an activist named Dave Fleischer. When he goes around canvassing, he tells people a personal story about his high school girlfriend. What's the story, Eitan, and why does Dave tell people that story?

HERSH: So Dave tells the story of his high school girlfriend and this very intimate story, really, about how he had a high school girlfriend to begin with. We later learn that Dave is gay and knew he was gay from the time he was a kid. And he had a high school girlfriend because in high school, that's what he's supposed to do to fit in. This is the 1970s. And he and his girlfriend weren't having sex. And he talks about that publicly and he talks about the fact that he didn't want to have sex with her. And she, in the end, felt bad that - like, what was wrong with her? And he tells this story to strangers at the door. Maybe he's canvassing on behalf of abortion rights and he's saying, you know, I'm a gay man; what do I know about abortion rights? Well, I can tell you a story that really speaks to me about why I take a pro-choice position. And the by pro-choice comes from a position of understanding all the complicated reasons why people have sex, why people might accidentally get pregnant, all the awkwardness of and discomfort of being a young person, figuring themselves out.

And, you know, God forbid that he did have sex with his girlfriend and she got pregnant and, you know, later - he had been hiding the fact that he was gay. It's, you know, a complicated situation. And he tells that story to someone who maybe is Republican, to someone who is pro-life, as a way to tell that person like, hey, this is where I come from. This is why, like, deep in my heart I have this value. And tell me about you and where you come from on an issue like this. And he tells this story - Dave tells this story to try to make a connection because on a lot of issues, the person at the other side of that door might not have a strongly held view or might have a view that changes in light of a story like Dave shares.

Maybe they're really strongly positioned on this issue and they're never going to - you know, they're never really going to move on it in Dave's direction. At least maybe they've built some mutual understanding with one another, Dave and the person at the door. On the other hand, it might be that this is the person who wasn't sure what they thought or had mixed feelings. And Dave's intimate story, Dave's story about his personal life, helps them see why this is so important to him. Dave's method is to say, well, let me be vulnerable to you. Let me open myself up to you. And in return, maybe you might do the same and you might better understand why I'm talking to you about politics today.

VEDANTAM: I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about the fact that this approach, which is sometimes called deep canvassing, was initially received with some skepticism in the academic community. But you say there has been subsequent work that has re-established the value of this technique.

HERSH: Yeah. This was a strange situation for the discipline of political science. The initial studies of this were done by this grad student who ended up fabricating the data. And so the initial results, which were very highly publicized, were all retracted. The study was retracted. It was very embarrassing. But the people who discovered the problem discovered it because they wanted to actually do it, too. They discovered all these irregularities in the data when they tried to, like, replicate what they were doing. So after the scandal broke, these same scholars did a new study that wasn't obviously fabricated, that was very rigorously done. And they found similar results. That is, that the deep canvassing is very effective. It's particularly effective at this very hard task of persuasion. The reason to do deep canvassing is not to remind people to vote. It's pretty easy to remind someone to vote. It's very hard to convince someone to change their mind about an issue. And so deep canvassing is one of the most effective ways, if not the most effective way, to do that. Now, it's time consuming. It's hard to train people. It's hard to convince people to do this very awkward thing. But in the end, it's effective.

VEDANTAM: So 2020 promises to be an intensely heated year when it comes to politics. And no matter what happens in the 2020 presidential election, it seems more or less certain that millions of people on the losing side are going to feel their fellow citizens have betrayed America and betrayed fundamental American values. The idea that ordinary people should reach out to their opponents, reach out empathetically, I'm wondering if a lot of people are going to say, you know, Eitan, that sounds like a pipe dream.

HERSH: I think quite the opposite. It's the only thing you can do. This book is written for someone who wants to understand their role in our democracy. Their role is not to follow what Trump does. No one is depending on them to follow the news about Donald Trump's tweets. No one is depending on them to have a hot take on Facebook. But there are ways in which they can be in communities where people are depending on them, depending on them to get to a meeting, to show up, to move policy in their direction. If they really care about something like climate change, guess what? The regional transportation system in their state might sound boring, but it's pretty important to solving that problem. And they as a citizen by themselves and the group that's organized locally can have a role to play in that. They can help their own neighbors move forward on some issues that they care about. They have no role to play in the national political scene. Yes, they can vote, but no one needs them - the country doesn't need them to follow Twitter. But I would say that the point of this book is that - to the tell the reader, hey, like, your country really does need you to do something. And it's not going to be following Twitter. It's going to be talking to your neighbors, building a community, getting organized, moving policy, doing what Naakh does, trying to get a thousand people to do what you want to do.

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VEDANTAM: Eitan Hersh is a political scientist at Tufts University. He's the author of "Politics Is For Power: How To Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action And Make Real Change." Eitan, thank you for joining me today on HIDDEN BRAIN.

HERSH: Thanks for having me.

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VEDANTAM: This week's show was produced by Parth Shah and Lushik Wahba and edited by Tara Boyle and Rhaina Cohen; engineering support from Andy Huether and Patrick Boyd. Our team includes Jenny Schmidt, Thomas Lu, Laura Kwerel and Cat Schuknecht. Fact-checking is a crucial element of the work we do on every episode of HIDDEN BRAIN. That's why our unsung hero today is Barclay Walsh. Barclay is a fact-checker at NPR, and she helped us verify some of the claims we made in today's show. Thank you, Barclay. If you enjoy today's episode, please share it with a friend or neighbor. Better yet, share it with someone you don't know well and start a new conversation.

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VEDANTAM: Before we go, we're looking for your help with a future episode. So many people have done something in the past that has come to haunt them for the rest of their lives. Maybe you did something wrong and you can't forgive yourself or maybe it's others who can't forgive you or perhaps the thing you did in the past was so brilliant and well-received that it's come to pigeonhole you. Years later, for both good and bad, you can barely identify with this old version of yourself, but to many other people, that stranger is still you. If you have a story like this and are willing to share it with us, please find a quiet room and record a voice memo on your phone and email it to us at hiddenbrain@npr.org. Use the subject line haunted. That email again - hiddenbrain@npr.org.

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VEDANTAM: I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

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