TALK OF POLITICS seems to be everywhere these days. It fills our social media feeds and comes up frequently at gatherings with friends and family. It is also increasingly present in the workplace, where companies are taking stands on everything from environmental issues to racism and anti-LGBTQ bigotry.
But what does it all add up to? Talk, as the old saying goes, is cheap, and Tufts University political scientist Eitan Hersh says that’s especially true these days when it comes to how we engage with politics.
Hersh, the guest on this week’s Codcast, says the way in which many people connect with politics today not only isn’t very productive, it actually has a corrosive effect on civic life. He unspooled that argument in a 2020 book, Politics is for Power, that called the type of engagement many people have with issues “political hobbyism.” Hersh said there is lots of passion expressed about political issues of the day, but most of it is little more than symbolic venting and virtue signaling.
Lots of Americans, he says, especially the college-educated ones who can’t seem to get enough of the latest political fights in Washington or national debates over Supreme Court rulings, are following current events closely and sharing their take on social media, but they aren’t part of the process of trying to make actual change to address problems. They aren’t rolling up their sleeves and getting involved in campaigns or other on-the-ground activities as much as they are acting out their outrage in ways that are just expressive or performative, he says.
“If you look at the people who are spending an hour or two a day cognitively engaged in politics, and, by the way, there’s more people than ever in that category,” Hersh says on the Codcast, “almost all of them are doing politics for their own intellectual and emotional ends. They have no strategy. They have no goals. They’re not doing politics to achieve anything specific. They’re really learning a lot of facts and emotionally engaging in politics.”
Hersh is now turning his focus to the workplace, where he argues the same kind of “political hobbyism” is taking hold. Whether it’s issuing strong statements on big political issues of the day or conducting diversity training exercises with employees, companies are increasingly engaging in politics.
Hersh argues that the sudden corporate dive into politics represents “one one of the most dramatic political changes in our lifetimes.” In what he says is the first major political realignment of the business community since the late 1890s, Hersh says the US business community, which had been largely aligned with the Republican Party for more than a century, is now veering Democratic. It’s a change in corporate leadership politics that lines up with the increasingly Democratic tilt of their companies’ college-educated white collar workforce.
Hersh wrote about the trend in a recent essay in The Atlantic titled “Political hobbyism has entered the workplace” and is working on a book on the topic. He thinks the new corporate energy for politics has all the same downsides he has written about political hobbyism at the individual level.
“I am deeply skeptical of what the current wave of white-collar political hobbyism will accomplish, especially when so many corporate pronouncements are clearly hot air,” he wrote in The Atlantic. Hersh pointed, for example, to the list of companies that “briefly, and very loudly, swore off donations to politicians who voted against certifying the 2020 election, and then very quickly, and very quietly, went right back to contributing to them.”
Hersh ties a lot of the problems with political hobbyism in the workplace to companies’ focus on national issues rather than more local ones where they could have a more of an impact.
Hersh, who has surveyed hundreds of corporate leaders across the country for his new book, says Massachusetts business leaders are much more grounded in state and local issues than their peers elsewhere. Hersh says some of that may be because so many businesses have ties to the universities and medical centers that are firmly anchored here and can’t pull up stakes and move.
When companies or business groups like the Chamber of Commerce here take positions on early childhood education or fixing the T, “they are having a big impact on the community, and they’re doing it in these ways that are political and civic, but not trying to chase every hot button, 24-hour news story,” says Hersh. “I think where you go wrong is when you follow hot-button issues and you just make stands and statements and lead conversations instead of being involved.”