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

A donkey and an elephant stare at each other across a chasm.
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Keeping up with American politics can feel like a feat. And we tend to think that knowing the latest news means that we're engaged. But what happens when being informed is the end of our commitment to politics?

"The way that people are doing politics is much more similar to a hobby than to what I think of as politics, which is, you know, acquiring power," says Eitan Hersh, a professor of political science at Tufts University. He says many Americans are engaging in what he calls "political hobbyism."

"What they're actually doing is not participating themselves in any active way. They're really just following the news."

This news increasingly comes from cable TV and social media, and the stories that get our attention are usually national stories, not local ones. Scandals and entertainment are also more appealing than discussions of policy or even what's happening in our own neighborhoods.

"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," Hersh writes in his book, Politics is for Power.

This week on Hidden Brain, we explore the paradox of our passion for politics: we're more informed than ever, but many of us are also less politically active. Why do we see politics as something that happens on Capitol Hill, and not in our neighborhoods? How do we re-frame politics from a form of entertainment to a vehicle for change in our lives? Hersh suggests that the solutions may be less daunting than we think.

Additional Resources:

Politics is for Power by Eitan Hersh, 2020.

"Validation: What big data reveal about survey misreporting and the real electorate," by Stephen Ansolabehere and Eitan Hersh in Political Analysis, 2012.

"Postmaterialist particularism: What petitions can tell us about biases in the policy agenda," by Eitan Hersh and Brian F. Schaffner in Amerian Politics Research,2018.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
Parth Shah is a producer and reporter in the Programming department at NPR. He came to NPR in 2016 as a Kroc Fellow.
Lushik Wahba
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.
Rhaina Cohen is a producer and editor for NPR's Enterprise Storytelling unit, working across Embedded, Invisibilia, and Rough Translation.