Many people who consider themselves to be politically engaged aren’t actually making a difference, Tufts University political science professor Eitan Hersh said in a lecture to BYU students Oct. 15.
Hersh spoke to a group of 87 BYU students and faculty over Zoom to discuss his book, “Politics is for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change.”
One of the main goals of the book, Hersh said, is to describe the phenomenon he calls “political hobbyism,” in which individuals consume news or engage in what he calls “immature punditry” (posting on social media and commenting on others’ social media posts) but do very little to bring about real political change.
Hersh said mere consumption of news or social media is more like sports fandom or foodie obsessions and is ultimately selfish. He said “political hobbyism” is the result of individuals satisfying intellectual interests or emotional needs rather than trying to make a difference for other people.
“If you ask a news junkie today and say ‘Ok, I want to get involved in this or that issue, what should I do?’ the news junkie just has to blush and say ‘Oh, I actually can’t tell you anything about that. I have no idea how you should get involved,’” Hersh said.
Hersh said college students especially tend to over-focus on the national, dramatic issues like the presidential debates or the Amy Coney Barrett hearings rather than the local issues that have a greater impact on their everyday lives.
For Hersh, real change happens when people “do politics,” which he defined as “working with other people with some goals and a strategy for achieving those goals.” He said the ultimate goal of this type of engagement is to influence the government.
For example, Hersh said while many people take chunks of time throughout the day to read the news, it might be more productive for them to take an hour and host a meeting to discuss important issues and how to address them.
“Power is a very uncomfortable term for a lot of people. Power is just about getting someone to do something they wouldn’t otherwise do,” Hersh said. For instance, getting people to vote who wouldn’t otherwise vote.
That type of influence comes from developing skills like empathy and active listening, Hersh said, pointing out that many of the most powerful political organizers he contacted during the research for his book were actually introverts. When people rant about their political frustrations online, Hersh said, “We are absolutely learning the wrong information and practicing the wrong skills.”
BYU student Kanae Lee said she felt “called out” by the lecture. “I see a lot of my friends and family suffering from what he described. Just watching news and not doing anything about it.”
Lee said that even though she’s from Singapore, the lecture made her interested to join political groups in America so she can practice skills like empathy and gain more political knowledge at the same time.
BYU political science professor Adam Dynes said Hersh’s lecture is “extremely relevant” for 2020.
“People are following national politics more than ever and stressing more than ever about it, too. But what are we doing to improve the world around us?” he said.
The lecture was hosted by the BYU Office of Civic Engagement, whose mission is to “provide students and faculty with the appropriate skills and meaningful opportunities to become engaged in their respective communities.”