Anthony Trollope poked fun at those fascinated by political life, obsessed with “the close, bosom friendship, and bitter, uncompromising animosity, of these human gods—of these human beings who would be gods were they not shorn so short of their divinity in that matter of immortality.” What hones the pleasure they derive from following the latest news is the fact that Parliament is not an “Olympus in which Juno and Venus never kissed.” It is, rather, a world of shifting alliances where “the divine bosom, now rabid with hatred against some opposing deity, suddenly becomes replete with love towards its late enemy.” This provides opportunities for effusions of enthusiasm and expressions of outrage, giving our humdrum lives the drama they might otherwise lack.
The political scientist Eitan Hersh, whose new book is Politics Is for Power, would say that this approach to politics is in truth entertainment, indulged by many for hours each day as they consume media new and old. It is not the real work of gaining and exercising power. He calls the sorts of people Trollope satirized “hobbyists.”
Hersh volunteered to canvas on behalf of the Democratic party in Massachusetts, where he found the ward regulars busy running the organization. He became unenthusiastic about the way campaigns are conducted, mainly by preaching to those who are already supporters. Voters are usually indifferent to arguments in support of specific positions, in his opinion (and that of other social scientists). He ascribes this lack of interest to the fact that today’s voters adhere to increasingly uniform blocs—Democrats and Republicans have become liberals and conservatives. The electorate is now organized by “partisan sorting,” rather than characterized by issue-by-issue judgments. Nowadays, we even tend to socialize in homogeneous bubbles, which engenders closed-minded and personalized disparagement of those whose political loyalties differ.
The old-fashioned political machines built loyalty by taking care of constituents’ mundane needs. This approach to politics makes more sense to Hersh. He supplies appealing vignettes of nonpartisan individuals who have acquired local influence by helping their neighbors. More significantly, he advocates a kind of political “witnessing” by which the canvasser does not attempt to win arguments with his fellow citizens. Instead, the immediate goal is to create a sense of community: to break down the barriers of estrangement and prejudice between the political camps on a one-to-one level and to form relationships with people who are not very knowledgeable or even interested in politics. For example, the advocate of homosexual marriage or climate change builds bridges to his neighbors as one person to another, without aiming to win them over right away. Down the road, once each side recognizes the other, minds and views may eventually be open to influence.
This kind of political spadework is labor-intensive; it requires patience, time, and willingness to listen and to wait. It is often effective in contemporary religious outreach. Hersh acknowledges that not everyone is cut out for it. Many consumers of political information and speculation are satisfied to be spectators and might be happy to accept the label of hobbyist. He has no quarrel with these fellow citizens and no desire to coerce them into his brand of strenuous political activism. I suppose he would also concede that many of us are not inclined to invest intensive time and attention to political canvassing because, with all due respect to the civic good of political engagement, we aspire and feel obligated to devote our lives to other types of excellence, to religious life, to learning, or to our families.
Hersh mentions a retired social worker he failed to recruit to his approach of political witnessing. The man demurred, arguing that offering an empathetic ear, let alone promising favors of the sort the old urban machines specialized in, is the kind of “dirty transactional politics” that should be eschewed. After all, the kind of psychological suasion and practical benefits “our side” offers can be matched by the other side as well: “Any side can recruit counselors or train volunteers to connect personally with voters.”
At first glance, the man’s demurral struck me as unbearably purist. It seemed an illustration of the tendency of many political aficionados to cultivate a virtuous political self-image rather than actually gaining power, which is a necessary condition for achieving one’s ends in public life. Some say they stand “on principle” and won’t “play games” as the cynical people do whose aim is to gain power. Then, I looked at it from the other end, imagining myself the target of the activity Hersh advocates rather than its agent. When I discover that the neighbor who so ingratiatingly lends me his ear and interest, bent on giving his democracy a human face, is really engaged in soft-sell salesmanship, the likely result would be to intensify my opposition, even my umbrage.
Perhaps Hersh is willing to risk this rebuff. More importantly, his aim is not only to provide an effective electioneering tool, but to improve political discussion, lower the temperature of partisanship, and remove some of the acrimony that we suffer from today. Civility may matter more than the short-term results of one election cycle. On-the-ground reciprocity and practical cooperation is a moral good in itself, allowing us to enjoy social life rather than having to gird ourselves for political battle at every juncture.
If this is Hersh’s larger goal, it opens him to an opposite attack from his left flank. The zealous progressive (or for that matter his right-wing counterpart) can accuse Hersh of trying to take partisanship out of politics, precisely at a time so parlous that it calls for uncompromising, take-no-prisoners partisanship. Too much is at stake, this argument goes, to place one’s trust in moderate rhetoric and dreams of long-term impact.
Joseph O’Neill’s criticism of Hersh’s book in the New York Review of Books articulates this objection. He claims befuddlement at Hersh’s simultaneous advocacy for grassroots activism together with willingness to work for nonpartisan compromise in the name of practical politics. O’Neill provides a substantial list of urgent liberal goals, and he insists that urgent calls for far-reaching structural change are necessary to energize the latent progressive majority in America. In O’Neill’s words: “All that Democrats can do to change the GOP is to defeat it. Reduce it to electoral rubble and force it to rebuild itself as a party that is basically competent and doesn’t pose a threat to organic and democratic life on Earth.” A politics that seeks to reduce adversaries to “electoral rubble” is precisely what Hersh wants to avoid.
If you share O’Neill’s passion and feel the same urgency of his agenda (or reject it with equal passion and urgency), you are entitled to adopt his call for unconditional partisanship. I am writing this before November 3. By the time you read these lines, we will know the outcome of the 2020 elections. (One hopes we are not mired in uncertainty after election day!) Whether or not the result is one-sided, or even decisive, the American people will likely remain divided. But this will not be the whole story. The real work of governing is not done by hobbyists. Politics is about gaining power and exercising it effectively. Policies that can be reversed after just one electoral defeat signals weakness, not strength—impotence, not power. Putting a lasting stamp on the body politic requires the cooperation, if not the full consent, of the very sizable minority that has been outvoted.
Trollope chides those who view politics as entertainment in Can You Forgive Her? It is a novel that commends the benefits that good, conscientious men can promote through parliamentary activity. Hersh believes that ideas like his can help shape a more civil public space of the sort Trollope portrays, if not immediately, then over time. Doubtless, his specific proposals are inadequate. But his goals should be ours. For if the policy questions and animosities in our society are no longer negotiable and brook no delay, and if the psychological resources of civility and tolerance have been exhausted, we, and our democracy, are in trouble.
Shalom Carmy teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at Yeshiva University and is editor emeritus of Tradition.