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by Wendy Willis
Hobbies take place in the cellar and smell of airplane glue. ~John Updike
Yes, it’s Saturday morning on a holiday weekend, and yes, I am supposed to have my nose to the grindstone working on manuscript revisions, and yes, I am in a beautiful cabin in the woods with my beloved and my faithful dog, but I just can’t let this one go. I promise I will go back to work this afternoon and if you find me here, I give you full permission to chastise me for lack of discipline.
But late yesterday afternoon, I started seeing a New York Times opinion piece passed around among my friends in the democracy world. I probably would have ignored it but for the title: “The Problem with Participatory Democracy Is the Participants.” That—as my husband says—is a hanging curve ball. I know that the writer Eitan Hersh—an associate professor of political science at Tufts—probably had nothing to do with the title, but for me, it was clickbait of the first order.
I was expecting the usual—we Americans are distractible, uninformed, and too susceptible to fractious partisanship to be trusted with responsible citizenship. But instead, I found something new. Hersh’s thesis is that Americans—particularly those on the left—have taken up what he calls “political hobbyism.” As he puts it, “[t]hey desperately want to do something, but not something that is boring, demanding or slow.”
He then goes on the describe obsessive news followers, partisans who get into heated social media arguments with people they don’t even know, and data junkies who frantically toggle “between horse races in suburban Georgia and horse races in Britain and France and horse races in sports (even literal horse races).” He summarizes: “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.”
I see what he’s getting at, and it stings. I hate to admit that, often, the last thing I see before I got to sleep is my Twitter feed. I watch the headlines with a fervor that I could never muster for even my favorite teams. And I agree that many of us—myself included—are addicted to both speed and simultaneity. We return to our refresh button again and again. And again. (And, yes, I do see the irony in firing off a response to an article that has not even come out in the print edition yet.)
But that said, I find Hersh’s critique to be both a little narrow-hearted and a little heavy on the scolding. And while I do think that the expression “political hobbyist,” is both clever and in many cases accurate, I think it is also dangerous to our sense of ourselves as citizens. Perhaps I am slightly sensitive to this framing because we have been here before. Generations of women writers have been dismissed as “hobbyists” while their male counterparts are seen as serious contributors to literature. Ditto with women’s “crafts” in contrast with the serious “arts” dominated by men. By diminishing certain forms of political participation as “hobbyism,” there is a distinct suggestion that politics should be left to those who know better. So, as a new generation of Americans come into the public square, this is a particularly self-satisfied and deflating framing of the issue.
“Hobbyism” in this context also has a tinge of “bystanderism.” It seems to infer that we are cheering from the sidelines while others are doing the real work. While I think that is sometimes true and it is often a colossal waste of time and energy, there is also a sense in which hobbyism as he describes it offers us both practice and moral clarity. It gives us a chance to place ourselves on the spectrum and determine our values so that when the time comes to act, we can. We can show up at a hastily called protest, we can intervene when our neighbors are being harassed on the train, we can speak clearly about our priorities when we stand up at a town hall with our member of Congress.
It is also a static framing. As it reads to me, there are the “hobbyists” and then there are the serious and knowledgeable experts who know how to make things happen. It suggests that the rest of us should just get out of the way and let the professionals take over.
But, what if we looked at it a different way? What if we considered ourselves to be joyful hobbyists some of the time and slogging experts on the other? Certainly, as a nation, we are—at best—adolescents in the technological environment we are all struggling to navigate. Most of us are not accustomed to the speed and ferocity of the current political environment. I think we can be forgiven if we behave a bit immaturely as we try to sort out where we fit in.
Also, it just depends on the day. Or the hour. Or the issue. Or the scale. While I would venture to say that many of us don’t have the vaguest idea how best to influence Congress or the White House outside of the loud, media-dominated space that we find ourselves in on Twitter and Facebook and cable news, we are better at the slow and tedious decisions in our own homes and communities. We know that it takes time and money and neighborhood agreement to get a speedbump put in. We’re willing to hang in there for dull and repetitive school board meetings as we sort out what is best for our own—and our neighbor’s—children. So while anyone of us might be a hobbyist on the issue of the Russia investigation, we can be a democratic slogger on the issue of school boundaries.
Besides, I have long worried that the deliberative democracy community is the Eat your Broccoli Caucus of the democracy movement. We scowl at democratic practices that are too raucous or ill-mannered or even joyful. We give the side-eye to activities that seem too competitive or irreverent or even fun. This, I’m afraid, puts us at a distinct disadvantage in the current environment, and Hersh’s critique lands him right in the center of our goody-two-shoes movement. (Consider this pursed observation: “The result of all this is political engagement that takes the form of partisan fandom, the seeking of cheap thrills, and amateurs trying their hand at a game.”)
That stance puts us at odds with human nature as the messy, loud jalopy that is democracy barrels down the road, looking for a rest-stop where everyone can pile out and re-group. I—for one—would rather we be there cheering the whole enterprise on, and offering off-ramps where quiet and dull work can happen. I would rather sometimes be crammed in the back seat and sometimes be serving coffee on the sidewalk and sometimes be handing out policy papers. I would rather co-opt the spirit of the often-wrong-headed trickster Edward Abbey, who famously quipped: “Saving the world is only a hobby. Most of the time I do nothing.”
Of course, these opinions are my own and have absolutely nothing to do with the official positions of DDC. I would, however, invite you to weigh in. Write a response of your own, and I’ll post it here.