Democrats are rarely at a loss to describe what they think is wrong with modern America, but their solutions to those myriad deficiencies are not so varied. Ultimately, they maintain, Americans are too apathetic about politics—an odd complaint at a time when everything from what sports you watch to what kind of coffee you drink has political implications. But the politicization of everything has proven insufficient to achieve the activist left’s prime directive: the accumulation and application of power. As Tufts University Professor Eitan Hersh helpfully confessed, there are no obstacles in the way of that objective as insurmountable as the public’s comfort and satisfaction.
In an adapted excerpt from his forthcoming book published in the Atlantic, Hersh does not disguise his contempt for “college-educated white people,” whom he dismisses as “political hobbyists.” This demographic perceives itself to be engaged in American civic life, but, in Hersh’s estimation, they are no more practitioners of politics than sports spectators are professional athletes. Political hobbyism, he writes, is not just a “tragic” “waste of time.” It renders our politics superficial and shallow. It creates incentives for politicians to seek attention rather than change. Worst of all, it yields to the status quo, which, in the eyes of radicals and reformers, is in desperate need of upending.
By contrast, Hersh sees the conduct of politics (properly understood) only in the work of activists and organizers. They do not view politics as a “parlor game,” which he defines as debating “issues on their abstract merits.” These hard-pressed operators are busily engaged in the formation of coalitions, lobbying politicians, and acquiring political authority. They are, in Hersh’s view, often poorer or of minority extraction, which contributes to the urgency of their circumstances and their disinterest in facile debate.
Though Hersh’s argument flies disconcertingly close to the logic that typifies heedless cults of action, he has a point about the commodification of politics. The transformation of political affairs into a form of entertainment hasn’t made our national debates more thoughtful and productive. But by lowering the bar that used to restrict entry into national political debates, we have increased participation and interest in the national political project. The fact that, by Hersh’s own admission, this increased representation hasn’t made our politics better should give him pause. Hersh doesn’t grapple with the ramifications of some of his other conclusions either. If he believes that the chief factors that lead people to become activists and organizers are precarity and hardship, the problem is that those factors are just not abundant enough for his tastes.
Last February, Gallup asked Americans about their relative satisfaction with ten essential elements of life, including their education, housing, health, employment, local community, and standard of living. Overwhelming majorities indicated they were either “very” or “somewhat satisfied” with these specific areas of life. When it comes to household income and leisure time, Americans were relatively less satisfied (at 76 and 77 percent respectively). It is true that African-Americans and Hispanics rate their circumstances far below those of whites. But these two economic issues do not occupy a dominant space in American political life. Not like they used to, at least. In 2016, 40 percent of those polled by Gallup rated economic issues as the most pressing problem facing the country. Today, only 11 percent say the same. If the plague of unserious politics as Hersh has described it is to be remedied, these auspicious conditions must end.
The political left has a habit of regarding nonparticipation in democratic politics with disdain. It is, in their view, the product of dispossession or a feeling of powerlessness. But in a society in which participation in politics is a choice, the underappreciated freedom to disengage is a political act. Complacency and indifference is a vote of satisfaction with the status quo the left so despises. Hersh has expanded the definition of disengagement to include not just those who do not care but those who do not care in ways he finds valuable. But if the obstacle to realizing Hersh’s vision of a radically redefined status quo is Americans’ general satisfaction with their circumstances, his problem is not that the voting public is too apathetic. It’s the opposite; they’ve rendered their verdict. It’s just not the one the left would prefer.