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Why Is This Happening? Highlighting the problem of political hobbyism with Eitan Hersh: podcast and transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with Tufts University professor Eitan Hersh about what he diagnoses as “political hobbyism” and what real political engagement looks like.

Has online activism and doomscrolling through Twitter turned politics into just a hobby for people? At what point is it just a way to spend time rather than affect meaningful change?

This week Tufts University professor, Eitan Hersh, joins to talk about what he diagnoses as “political hobbyism,” what real political engagement looks like, and argues how this self-gratifying online hobbyism can be detrimental to the real political activism needed to create change.

Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.

EITAN HERSH: Are most of us working with other people who achieve concrete goals? No, we're not. We're not doing that. We're doing something that's much more about our own short term emotional and intellectual gratifications. We think we're politically engaged if we know what Nate Silver thinks about an upcoming election, whereas that's not political engagement at all. That's something totally weird and different.

CHRIS HAYES: Hello, welcome to "Why Is This Happening," with me your host, Chris Hayes. So, if you are listening to this podcast, you are probably not a particularly representative American in the degree of attention you paid to politics. This is sad but true. I wish it were not the case. It would be awesome if this podcast had... I don't know, 50 million downloads a month and everyone from every walk of life, whether interested in politics or not, was listening to it.

But that is not the world we live in, at least not yet. My plan for world domination is not yet complete. If you are hearing this, if you are hearing the smooth dulcet tones of my voice through our nice fancy setup in your ear holes, you are very likely to be a political junkie. You're probably a person that reads a lot of political news, spends a lot of time on the old twitter.com doing a little doom surfing, doomscrolling with your thumb, just paging down finding new terrible things and outrageous things to feed the sympathetic nervous system in a constant mix of endorphins and adrenaline.

Maybe you watch my television show, "All In With Chris Hayes," weeknights, 8:00 PM on MSNBC. Maybe you listen to a bunch of political podcasts, maybe you donate to political candidates. That might not be all of you, I don't presume and in fact, we'd love to hear from you. If you're not that or if you've recently become that and weren't before, I'd really love to hear your feedback, you can email us withpod@gmail.com. It's a big country, there's 100 and... What's going to be? Probably 155 million people who voted in this last election. And most of those voters... That doesn't even count the non voters and there's probably about... I don't know, probably about another 100 million non voters who would be eligible.

Even of voters, even of the 155 million people that voted in this election, the majority of them are not politics junkies, the kinds of people that are really into politics and care really deeply about it and have very formed views on who Joe Biden should put on his EPA transition team, are not representative of the vast majority of American voters or even the median voter or even that big of swath of them. But there are a lot of you, there's 10s of millions of you on both sides. There's a book that was published this year that's a really fascinating book about folks like you basically, that says, essentially you're the problem with American politics.

Now, that's a little reductive. And I'm being exceedingly provocative here. But it's a book called politics is for power, "How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action and Make Real Change." And it's by a political scientist at Tufts University named Eitan Hersh. And it's got a really provocative and I think compelling, if in some cases I think not quite right argument about the way we understand and do politics, particularly the subset of us and I count myself in this group, I mean, I do this for a living.

So it's not really a hobby but if I didn't do it for a living, it would be. About what we are doing, when we are consuming politics and thinking about politics and doomscrolling all day and how we might be able to think about that in different ways or even change our behaviors in ways that would actually be more efficacious in making change in the world. And so I'm really psyched to have Eitan Hersh on why this is happening? Welcome, Eitan.

EITAN HERSH: Thanks for having me.

CHRIS HAYES: Tell me about your background. First in political science, what is your area of study?

EITAN HERSH: Sure, yeah. I study U.S. elections, voting rights and civic engagement. A lot of my work before this book was and continues to be about voting rights. I go testify in court cases about issues like voter ID laws and stuff that. And then I do also work on campaign analytics. I testified a couple years ago at the senate about the Cambridge Analytica scandal in Facebook. What firms that do with data and how they use it. And then this book I just wrote and a lot of my new work is about civic engagement. What are regular people doing when they're doing politics? What should they be doing? Why are they doing what they're doing, stuff like that.

CHRIS HAYES: Let's talk about civic engagement because there's been huge large scale secular trends in civic engagement over time, that are the backdrop for this, you talk about some of them the book. And then I want to talk about the amateur democrats also. But what are the trends and what is civic engagement? What would you call civic engagement? How do we define it? And what are the long term trends and how much civic engagement people are doing?

EITAN HERSH: Sure, well, when I think about civic engagement tied to politics, separate from community service type work but we can get back to the analogy between those two things, I would put a definition, it's working with other people, with some goal to influence the government, right? Or it could be to influence the lives of other people, this thing. And in terms of organizational involvement, having people attend a meeting, belong to a group, do political or civic work with churches, that's been on the decline for years.

We're below historical averages in terms of organizational engagement in politics or civics, attending community meetings, parent-teacher things, that kind of thing. We're at an all-time high in terms of cognitive engagement in politics. So we're definitely at an all-time high in terms of the number of people who say politics is important, who say they care about politics and it's kind of weird, right? Because that number has gone way up, particularly in the Trump era, particularly for liberals. But the organizational metrics have not quite gone up in the same way.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, I mean, just to talk about the non-political part of this, right? A big story of American life from the last say, 70 years, post war to now is the decline in all these fraternal organizations, civic organizations, there's the famous Robert Putnam, sociologist Harvard book, Bowling Alone, which is just about the decline of bowling leagues. But, the Elks in the American Legion halls.

I have one in my neighborhood actually and when every time I pass it, even in COVID, they're still rocking out there. I just think to myself, every time I pass in my neighborhood, I'm, "That looks nice." A place to go. I get it, what's awesome about that. And that used to be a much bigger part of American’s lives, even just in a non political sense than it is now.

EITAN HERSH: That's right. In that secular civic space, that's true. On the religious space, you've seen a major decline but also a polarization, right? Well educated white liberals are all of a sudden in the last couple decades really unlikely to belong to a church where they're attending regularly, whereas that's not true on the right. So you have definitely a decline and it's used more in certain sectors and others of regular community engagement.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. So there's the civic secular part, there's the church part, which again used to not be so polarized around politics, it was just people are just much more churched and much more participated in their churches. And those churches also, I think we're probably less polarized, right, themselves. I think it probably is the case that, the polarization along all these lines is happening in American life. And the spatial geospatial polarization means that 30 years ago, your congregation probably had a wider array, right? Of voters and political ideologies than it does today.

EITAN HERSH: That's true but you also see it within... Particularly on the liberal side, within liberal denominations that have long been liberal. They're just dying off. They're on the steep decline.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, they're the mainline Protestant basically is-

EITAN HERSH: Even the most... Even the Unitarians, even the reformed Jews, Jewish synagogues. I mean, these places are losing members.

CHRIS HAYES: So then your politics. I guess the question is, how do you measure that? Right? Political civic engagement, right? Getting together to... The thing I think about all the time, because my father was a community organizer and came out of Alinsky tradition is the block club that works to get the stop sign or the speed bump is the real to me, bedrock iconic example. Do we have measurements of that kind of engagement?

EITAN HERSH: Well, we have measurements, the people who say they belong to an organization that they worked with other people in the last year on a civic or political venture. We have those kinds of survey measures. And there we see this weird thing, right? If you're measuring civic engagement at the cognitive level, you care about politics, you're worried about Donald Trump, things like this. And you see, okay, well, how many of those people say they are doing anything concrete? And the answer is way less than half. Most people who are cognitively are not doing that stuff.

Outside of surveys. It's really hard to measure it, you can... How to get what Bob Putnam did and went around and tried to find measures, how many elk clubs are there and how many there used to be. My colleague actually at Tufts, Jeff Berry, has studied the sharp decline in Tea parties. Local Tea Party chapters once Trump was elected, right? You see groups like that dying off, when the change administration and certainly you'll probably see that on the left now right? Groups like Indivisible and some of them are going to die off. It's kind of a graveyard of groups that once the Biden administration comes in.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. There's something thermostatic there, right? It's easier to organize that civic engagement in resistance or opposition than it is outside of that context.

EITAN HERSH: Well, I think when it's nationalized that, that's right. You mean, the groups that I spend much time on in a book focusing on and championing they're really mostly as focused on quite local things. So they're not... I think that one of the values of real grassroots organizations is that they are not fairweather organizations.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. It's actually foul-weather organizations. Right. The point is that they galvanize and come together in environments in which people who I think you would describe as political hobbyists feel out of power, right? When they feel that their choice has been rejected, the nation's trending in the wrong direction, liberals under Trump or Tea Party conservatives under Barack Obama but that does not have... There's not essentially this robust rootedness to that, that is able to endure through different seasons.

EITAN HERSH: That's right. Exactly right.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. Sketch up the thesis of the book, right? The thesis of the book is essentially a critique of what you call political hobbyism. What is political hobbyism? How does it relate to the civic engagement and what's your critique?

EITAN HERSH: Yeah, I would say, the book has really four goals. The first is just a diagnosis. I mean, I think that... Where I come from, this from a research angle is you look at the ways people are engaging in politics. You look up the ways they're engaging in news consumption, in partisan cheerleading, in online activism, online amateur punditry. You look at all that and you ask, what is this all amount to?

And I think the answer is that it doesn't look like politics. It looks a lot more like obsessive sports fandom than it does politics and that's where you come up with this tagline about political hobbyism and it looks like a hobby. It's an insulting thing to say, as you mentioned in your introduction, that it really does rub people the wrong way, because people have stronger values when it comes to politics than they do about sports. And so isn't it quite demeaning to call my hours of rage leading a hobby.

But if you look at it, are most of us working with other people who achieve concrete goals? No, we're not. We're not doing that. We're doing something that's much more about our own short term emotional and intellectual gratifications. We think we're politically engaged if we know what Nate Silver thinks about an upcoming election, whereas that's not political engagement at all.

That's something totally weird and different. Working with other people to make sure that... To think about how, say, our local police force interacts with ICE and how that relates to immigration in our community, what racial equality looks in our community. People who think they're politically engaged don't do that. They actually might think it's beneath them, parochial to care about a state legislature or a local town.

Step one of this, is a diagnosis. And then I would say that just very quickly, the other, the other goals of the book are one, try to evaluate where this comes from, why it's more prominent now than it was before. The third goal is to really try to evaluate whether it's possibly good, I think a lot of people have the intuition that maybe political hobbyism is a gateway into real political activity.

I actually come down, that's the opposite... It not only is a complete waste of time but it makes us bad political actors and harms the way politicians engage in politics. And then because I don't want the whole book to be a bummer. As you know, a lot of the book is about the fourth goal, which is the alternative to political hobbyism and by highlighting seven stories of organizers from age 18 or so to age 98 we're trying to give them flavor of what does real politics look like.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. So let's talk about the diagnosis and hobbies. I think there's... The one thought I had as I was reading the book about this is that, to me, what's interesting about this is that I always, when I lived in Italy or when I would talk to my... Back when my grandfather was alive, who was one generation removed from being an Italian immigrant, the idea that people talk about politics, the way you talk about sports is very omnipresent in other cultures but was not in America.

This actually, to me... Part of what I think is interesting here is... And in fact, right, in other countries often cases, it literally lines up with football clubs. In Argentina, there are different football clubs that literally represent different political factions. And those are all tied up with each other. They're tied up with each other, when they play each other. They're tied up with each other in matches. That's true in Israel. It's true in the U.K., right?

And to me I always found it an admirable part of other cultures of people the old men in the town square of Bologna would just be sitting around arguing politics all day. It's what they did. So they did in the cafes. And in other cultures, I've been in places like Brazil, I encountered that in Mexico, to a certain degree. The level of just people fighting about, talking about politics in other countries has always struck me as higher than the US and one of the trends that I've seen in my life is an increase in the US of that. Right? That's much more now part of U.S. culture. I was curious, your sense of this comparatively when you think about it. How distinctly American what this is?

EITAN HERSH: Yeah. Well, I think it's common. In some ways it's common in all countries where people have an hour or two a day to kill on hobbies. There's some things that are unique about America. One is, we've had this huge nationalization trend in our attention towards politics. So I think that in our grandparents' day, there were people who were engaged in politics, they would have a lot of drama and fights but it was often local stuff. And indeed, if you're involved in local politics, now, there's plenty of drama and intrigue and gossip but it's like, can you believe what Sally said at the meeting? It's high drama but it's not nationalized.

And yet compared to most other countries, our government is not nationalized. And so power doesn't flow just to your choice of a political party for President. There's a ton of stuff to do. We have elections every second, county governments have a lot to do with racial equality, state governments have a lot to do with climate change policy and housing. And so there's something that's different here, which is that as our eyeballs have gotten so intently focused on national drama and national political party fights, our constitutional system doesn't allow our politics to be decided on that way. So it seems a real tremendous waste of time and energy here relative to other countries.

CHRIS HAYES Right. Because we're more federalized.

EITAN HERSH: We're federalized. So if you say... I mean right now, Democrats say... Apart from COVID, they say their biggest issues are the environment, and racial inequality. If you look at how those problems are addressed, they're not addressed mainly to the national government and they're not going to be and so if people's attention are just, "Well, let's have Ed Markey fight for the Green New Deal in the U.S. Senate." That's not how this stuff's going to get done. And what's interesting is that even in the bluest states, the energy is not towards those state legislators and those governors, it's not. It's about having their senator fight on the Senate floor with senators from Mississippi.

Look, I see this just as, in part a big waste of time. In the opening chapter of the book, I give the story about the Ku Klux Klan, which is just... The story is quick. It's just a couple years ago, in 2018, the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina was going around to opioid addicts and saying, hey, you have an opioid addiction, it's not your fault, we're here at the white knights of the KKK to help you.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.

EITAN HERSH: And I really want a reader to say, "Holy moly, that's how the KKK is getting support? Am I doing anything like that? I'm I helping people? Am I building power or am I just deferring to groups that do it better than I do and care more about it than I do?" And so, if on the one hand, you have this huge group of people who are cognitively invested in politics and learning about polling averages and stuff like that and then you have other people on the ground doing work. I just want to ask the reader, are you cool with that?

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. That anecdote, I think, actually, George Gale was the first one who told me that anecdote.

EITAN HERSH: That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. George and I go way back. He's actually been a guest on the podcast. So you diagnose the person, so then there's the strong claim and the weak claim, right? The weak claim is, this is a thing that is not what you maybe think it is. It's a hobby and that's fine, people have hobbies.

People are into fishing or... And the basic insight there, I think is, there's something really to it, because one thing that I always find interesting is, I will think that the world of political discourse i exhausting and a sewer but anytime I trip over into the world of sports discourse or ebike thread nerd discourse, it's all the same. It's exactly, it's just all replicable. People fight on the internet about everything under the sun and increase Fandom Twitter or fandom threads about TV shows or about whether the latest "Star Wars" spin-off is good or not.

It's all as brutal and gnarly as politics and there are literally zero stakes, it literally does not matter. And so that part of the insight to me, I think there's something profound there, right? People just spend their time differently, fighting about different things or rooting different things on. And that's the human condition in the digital age.

EITAN HERSH: I guess. Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: But it's to me, that's more profound... It's both more charitable and more profound reading on this, right? Because you're coming at this from politics, right? You're diagnosing this as a specific thing about politics. But to me, it's, well, this is just one Reddit thread that you can spend your life on. The other is, one of them's QAnon, the other is about UFOs and one of them's about how you fix your motorcycle up. And the other is about JJ Abrams, Star Wars.

EITAN HERSH: Exactly but this feels a lot more condescending, right? Because this is saying, Oh, politics ought not to be about that." And a lot of people don't want it to be. If you're in it, you don't think it's that.

CHRIS HAYES: That's true but I also think that, the harder ladder you have to climb is to go from the weak claim to the strong claim, which you do in the book and I want you to spell it out. So the weak claim is, this is a hobby, you're not doing anything more important or interesting than if you were really into fixing up your motorcycle. Although there you concretely could have a motorcycle that works. You probably actually have more influence over the functioning of your motorcycle than who wins the US Senate. But that's different than this is actively harmful. Right?

EITAN HERSH: Yeah. But that's right. It's different and it's actually harmful. But I actually don't think that's the only stronger case. If I put the mirror in front of a reader and say, "Hey, you know what you're really doing is similar to how people who watch Survivor dissect episodes, they would say, Oh, I don't want it to be like that." I hope there's an education part of this, right? Which is, I want to show an alternative. Because I... There are some people who are, "Yeah, cool. I want to spend every day on Twitter and following polling averages and leave me alone." Fine, they're not going to read this book. I think that the person who I hope will read the book is someone who says, "Oh, man, when I look in the mirror, I see this caricature of a hobbyist you're describing and I don't want to be this person. I want to do something more."

CHRIS HAYES: Right. And you're... Make the argument about... I have met people who are hobbyists, for whom I do think it has been a kind of gateway. Although a gateway again, one of the critiques that you offer that I think is interesting on the money is about how you interface with politics. So let's talk about someone who... Because there are a lot of people I think, particularly the Trump era who really weren't into politics before, got activated to it and then have done things maybe done a little... Maybe they’ve gone to protest for the first time in their lives. I think that was definitely true this summer after George Floyd. I think there were a lot of first time attendees at those protests, that were probably the largest, we think. One of the largest protests in American history.

There's people who maybe donated for the first time or maybe did some text banking or maybe did... I know some people in New York who did stuff around, the race my brother ran the campaign of, Jamal Bowman. What about that? How common is that to the extent that we can measure that empirically? And why does that not happen more in your view?

EITAN HERSH: Why does what not happen more?

CHRIS HAYES: Well, the gateway theory, right? The idea that people become hobbyists and from Hobbyism, move to action because the way that no one starts out going from not caring to knocking on a door, you start out from not caring to caring and being interested and then to action.

EITAN HERSH: Yeah. Okay, so two things to say on this. The first is that one reason that gateway is hard is that in general with political hobbyism, which let's just say it's amateur punditry and a lot of obsessive news reading online and watching shows and podcasts and all that. A lot of times we are learning the wrong information and practicing the wrong skills that would allow us to take action, right?

So our information is very nationalized. And then, you could see someone who spends two hours a day on politics in terms of consumption. And then if you ask that person, "Cool, you care about climate change, how do I get involved?" And the news junkie’s like, "I don't know. I don't know how to get involved. I don't know how power flows in my state or my community." The places where the citizen can get most involved, they're not seeking information on that level.

They're also, I really think, fundamentally practicing a bad skill set, particularly on social media, right? So one really common thread to any power relationship, which politics is, right? In politics, if I want power, I need to get another citizen or a policymaker to take some action that they're not going to otherwise take. They're going to vote for the candidate that I want them to vote, or a local political official is going to do this thing I want them to do. What's the skill that you need to do that? And then really, it's just any other power relationship and the skill set focused on empathy. It's, "How do I get my kid to get in the bath?" Well, by figuring out, what are they doing right now? How can I get them to move in a different direction? Look them in the eye.

And when you're trying to move a voter or you're trying to move a politician, thinking about where they're coming from? What are their incentives, all that is key to moving someone. And in online engagement, we're just not doing that much. We're just really trying to get stuff off our chest, express ourselves. It's just we're not practicing being a strategic human being and so that's a problem. The thing I'll say about... Particularly the Black Lives Matter protests, because I'm often asked this. People are, "Oh, I went to a Black Lives Matter protest this summer." Is that hobbyism? And my first reaction is, well, I'm not the arbiter of that. But let's look in the mirror, right?

So I say to them, if you went to a Black Lives Matter protest this summer, which a lot of people did, someone at the front of that protest probably gave a speech that went something like this, they said, "Thank you for coming. This is step one, what we really need you to do is come to the city hall meeting, come to the town hall meeting, come when we go before the board, the council, we recommend these five concrete things.

We need you to show up and back us up because it's hard to make these changes and we need you to come be there for us." So for the random person who went to a Black Lives Matter protest, the question is, was that protest the beginning and the end of their engagement? Or was it a gateway into showing up? And for most people, I think they're going to have to look back and say, You know what?

That was the beginning and the end for me. And for that person, maybe they look in the mirror and say, geez, maybe attending that protest was more about me feeling good about myself than doing anything for other people. But for other people it is a gateway, absolutely. And the social media campaign that got people to pay attention to Black Lives Matter and that got people into this protest for a lot of people it did transform them into activists and it's going to make changes. It's not a one size fits all.

The question is, for each individual person is like, "How did that go for them?" And really just for an awful lot of people, it never goes past that big very surface level engagement that just feels a little bit more about satisfying your own emotional intellectual needs than serving a political value.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, I published a book about criminal justice and policing and authority in 2017 and I would go and give book talks and people will be, "What can I do about this?" And the thing that I always say is... Basically, no one pays any attention to local district attorney races, which is an incredible opportunity because if you get active in them, you can really disrupt them because no one's really paying attention. And so that's a really good place to put your energy where you actually have tremendously high leverage. Part of the reason that AOC won that race, right, was the turnout in that district was so low.

You've got these local areas where you can channel your energy, where you actually are also super high leverage precisely because of how overlooked they are. I want to talk a little bit more about what your prescriptive vision is for doing politics, making politics about power, right after we take this quick break.

So I want to talk about the positive but let's just stay with this a little bit about the critique because part of it too, as I read it, well, you're asking a lot of people here. And that's fine. Asking a lot of people is fine in a long and proud tradition and democratic citizenship. But at any given moment there's only going to be so many people that are going to do the kinds of things that you are talking about.

I mean, that might expand and contract during different eras. But when you talk about the kinds of people that are going to go ... And I'm someone who's tried to do this in various points in my life of trying to get people to do things, right?

Most of the people say, No, most people have other stuff. Most people don't have any time, right? I mean, I'm the father of three young kids. And it's like, the idea of going to a meeting, I don't have to go to is, no way, am I going to a meeting I don’t have to go to.

EITAN HERSH: Yeah but okay. But hold on, because I think that... I'm not talking to the person who is working two jobs and can't fit this in, I'm talking to the person who's telling me on a survey that they're spending two hours a day on politics. And I want to tell them, "Hey in a previous era, you weren't just wasting your life on Twitter, you were doing important things in the world." I'm the father of three young kids, too.

And I spent two evenings a week in community organizations and its mostly now on Zoom for my living room and what's getting sacrificed is not my job or my children's time, it's Netflix. There's a hell of a lot of people who say don't have time who have to binge watch Netflix every day.

CHRIS HAYES: Oh no, totally. And that's what I would tell people when I was trying to recruit them to volunteer, right? You actually do have time just to want to do it. I'm just saying that there is... All I'm saying is the universe of people that are going to do that is always going to be a subset of the population, right?

EITAN HERSH: For sure.

CHRIS HAYES: What you're identifying to me is, there's a gap between this ratio between the political hobbyist and the amount of people actually doing this ground level work that you want to narrow. And I guess my point is always just that's never... That relationship is never going to be one to one. Because there's an elasticity that is going to reach the point where, back through the history of time, right? The people in the German labor bund, weren't all the people in the factory. There were some people the same way that the people in your group class, when you're doing your fourth grade science experiment, there are a few people we're doing really, really into it and some are not.

EITAN HERSH: That's right. It's really surprising. I've noticed since you know, writing the book and talking about the book. There are so many people, from people who are my students — 18, 19 years old to senior citizens — who actually forgot or never learned the language of real participation. It's not just they're making a choice or feel they don't have enough time. When they hear a story in the book, the story of Nach, the story of Querys, or the story of Angela, they're, I never heard of people like this before. It's really amazing.

CHRIS HAYES: Right? That it's not so much choice, it’s that people don't actually know it's a thing you could do.

EITAN HERSH: Yeah and they don't know it's awesome. And by the way, I should say this, that I didn't know it was awesome. As I talked a bit about in the book, I wasn't an activist type before I got into the book and I was... I might have disparaged activism or organizing. And I spent a lot of time with these people who are organizers, all volunteers and I thought, wow, I really admire these people in a way I did not think I would have had a time.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. So let's talk about that. As I said before in this interview and also in the podcast, my dad was a community organizer for years. That's a tradition I came up in, that's very much exactly the stuff you're talking about is extremely intensely, sometimes even, I think a little parochially local in what it’s trying to do. When you talk about politics being about power and accreting with other people to leverage that power to improve things, what are models of what you're talking about?

EITAN HERSH: Yeah, so I mean, just to give an example in a book, one example is this woman Querys Matias, she's a Dominican immigrant to the United States. She's a school bus monitor in her real life and then in evenings has this Latino coalition in her town. And what do they do? They get organized to solve very concrete problems for their community, which are really tied into important national problems like sitting down, getting 35, 40 people to talk to the school district about why the schools that even have majority Latino populations don't have any people in the school who can talk to parents in Spanish. Talk to the police department about their interaction with ICE. Talk to the city about why the city workers are mostly white in a town that is, demographics have changed quite a bit over time.

And these people also get organized to vote in elections. Okay, they also do canvassing for elections and it's a bottom up organization, right? They're focused on really concrete things, they're focused on... It's not just fixing potholes, though, right? It's tied to important issues that motivate them and for that matter, frighten them. That is politics. It's amazing how powerful it is to get 30 people in a room with a mayor, because... Actually very few people in a community can get 30 people together to want to meet with the mayor. And so when they do, the mayor or the school superintendent or police chief, they're like, Holy moly, we have to pay attention to these people.

That's just one model. There's another model, a book about a woman in Brooklyn who goes over to Staten Island every week or during the general election, she went to Pennsylvania every weekend and did this deep canvassing strategy of talking to... She is a liberal, you talking Trump voters out about... And trying to empathize with them trying to understand what they care about and trying to convey to them in a very non judgmental way, why elections are really important to her and why maybe they should maybe consider their voting the way she votes. And all these people are basically counting votes or counting voices. They're saying, I have more power than just my one vote if I spend the time getting other people to come along with me either to advocate or to vote.

And so, you see people in the book who control 1000 votes, which at first sounds scary, corrupt but actually just means that they manage over time to convince 1000 people to go along with them in terms of voting and advocacy. And they have tremendous power from doing that.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. I mean, that's part of it. And that, to me, is also the key distinction here, is that it's collective work as opposed to transactional. There's no button to click or money to send. You actually have to interact as a human being with other human beings to do the work you're talking about because democratic politics has to be a collective enterprise. That's just the only way to make it work.

EITAN HERSH: That's right. And trying to get 10 people to vote the way you want to vote is not easy but it's... One of the things I want to show is that it's actually incredibly gratifying. You're really having this deep human connection when you do real political activity that you just cannot be matched by anything on Instagram.

CHRIS HAYES: What have you learned about that?

EITAN HERSH: Well, again, I think I learned... Because I didn't do much politics before... Now, I do a lot of politics. But what I guess what I learned is that politics in my own life is a lot closer to community service in my life, right? I've always been involved in community service and religious leadership, local religious institutions, things like that. And then I thought politics is going to be in some other bucket, something that was very distinct. And really, it just seems much more a continuation.

When I think about work that I'm doing about affordable housing, which is an important thing for me or about policing, which I've gotten more involved in, I don't see it as particularly... It's not political. It's not Democrat versus Republican political. Where I live pretty much everyone's a Democrat but all the people who disagree with me are also Democrats.

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

EITAN HERSH: So it's not Democrat versus Republican. It's tied to what community do we want to live in? How are people treated? So I found this important lesson, which is that politics and community service are actually quite connected to one another.

CHRIS HAYES: And one of the things that I was thinking about as I was reading your book on this part of it was that... I am working on something right now, just sort of an essay about my takeaways from the 2020 election but one of the big ones I think, is just... It's a very structurally polarized country and then the things that are driving the structural polarization our educational, economic, sociological, technical, informational and geospatial trends that are way bigger than any election or any campaigning, the tapping on the margins of the four to 6 percent of the vote that might swing from one direction or the other. And there's things you can think about to do about that.

But one way to think about progressive change, particularly or making the world a better place is, okay, so in these environments of the structural polarization, where Democrats are going to control... Have pretty durable control of the state or city New York or California is, make those places as good as possible.

And as just and as equitable and... The place that you really run into a lot of roadblocks on that is when the neighborhood gets together and says they don't want the new affordable housing built in the neighborhood. And that's those fights are winnable fights but someone's got to show up on the other side, because the people that tend to show up at those community meetings are the people that tend to exercise their muscle in these local fights tend to be pretty reactionary, in the narrow sense, on the question at issue.

EITAN HERSH: That's right. In some ways, I think the polarization narrative is wrong because you show up for any fight locally. I was giving a talk to the folks at BYU in Provo, Utah, right, which is a republican version of where I live. I live in a 90 percent democratic place, right? But there it’s the same basic issues about housing and transit and all that stuff. It's just that in neither case, is it democrat versus republican? It's just not how things are framed. But yet I think that there's a frustration here, which is that if you say you care, most of all about, say. something like racial inequality.

And if the only way you engage on that issue is through a $5 donation to this candidate in another state, or a vote for this presidential candidate or... It's what's going on in your own community? Because the people who show up right, exactly what you're saying, just don't agree with you. I've been working on this policing issue locally and it's a 90 percent democratic town where I live. And that had a lot of protests during the heat of the Black Lives Matter protests.

And then we had a public comment period, from the public about ways to reimagine policing. 100% of the written public comments were from people who were just allied with the police department saying no, don't change a thing. Everything is great. My God where were all those people who are out on the street, Where did they go? This is an uphill battle for any social change. But this is why I think it is not about Democrat versus Republican. It's about who's weighing willing to, pay the cost.

CHRIS HAYES: I wonder how whether that cost has gotten higher or not, I mean, I guess it hasn't, right. In some ways, it's probably easier, particularly in the Zoom era, where you can just Zoom in. But maybe, I mean, part of your argument is that actually, the big problem is that the learned traditions of just the logistics of how you interface are just not known. Right, it's not the cost is higher, it's that there's a kind of lost knowledge there.

EITAN HERSH: Yeah, I mean, look, I think part of it is just the technology argument is something we've gotten to spend all of our social time and these five minutes stints toggling to social media or whatever. And we feel this light connection to other humans that we do that. And it makes, even going to an hour a zoom meeting or showing up to a meeting. Feels like a big lift, even though it's less of a lift now particularly on Zoom, it's way less of a lift now it just feels like a relative lift.

But yeah, I mean, I think also look, there's obviously in the book, there's a small chapter on religious engagement, particularly this abandoning of religious institutions from the left. And I think that if you're not in any regular weekly community participation, you don't have a feel for what it's like, in fact, it can feel quite intimidating.

And again, I think folks who go to church every Sunday or have some human neighborhood organizational meeting where they see other people and get to know their neighbors, it's easier for them to feel that on ramp than if they're just very detached from any community organization. And, of course, this give,s particularly on the political dimension ,the Republican Party a huge advantage because republicans are both older and more religious and are much more comfortable in organizing Political spaces as a result.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. And I think you see that I mean, one thing that you talk about in the book and I think is often overlooked is that back during the Bush years, it was very clear the Evangelical Church in America, which is not at all a monolithic entity and is actually quite diverse in lots of interesting ways. But the white evangelical world of white evangelical Christianity, not exclusively Latino, evangelical Christianity as well, the Black church is, I think a really distinct thing.

That those worlds are actually huge parts of the undergirding structure of Republican politics and conservative politics. And that was very manifest during the Bush era. And then everyone forgot it. But it's just also true during the Trump era. It's all the same voters. They're all the same voters voting exactly the same way, built on the same social capital structures that were existed before.

EITAN HERSH: That's right. And it's not a devious thing.

CHRIS HAYES: No It's not devious.

EITAN HERSH: It's just some weird thing where I think progressives or liberals tend to think that they are the party of community grassroots organizing, it's just not true at all. I mean, when you see the church network, give you another, personal example, almost every election, especially local elections, I'll send 100 people in my neighborhood, who I'm going vote for a slate of my candidates. And a lot of them just take my slate into the polling place, because I know the issues and candidates more than they do and they trust me, right. And most of those people I know, come from religious connections.

And that's the kind of thing that can happen when you have a neighborhood based community. And there's nothing organized about it, there's no pastor saying, here's who to vote for anything that. It's just people knowing each other in a localized way that creates, and not just know each other but have a trust relationship with each other, that generates that. And again, you have that anywhere there's churches and you don't have it really where there's no churches or no alternative, no community organizations, no tight unions or anything like that.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, that's the thing, right? You have these huge institutions of community life that have dissipated in for a bunch of different reasons or churches and religious attendance and particularly among people in major metro areas, particularly people with liberal politics. And then unions used to be another way that this, all this social capital got built with a very explicitly the very explicit goal of building power and they've been essentially shredded by an assault of decades. And also, I think, some trends that make people more atomized, generally.

So it just when you think about, what are the community outlets? What are the spaces or rituals or institutions that exist that put people in community with each other? In a routine way? Take away unions, take away the church? There are a bunch of invented versions of this, the folks that you talked about in the book but they have to be built, right, the genius of a union or churches is there already. You, you just plug into it?

EITAN HERSH: Right. And of course as I talked about a bunch of the book, local political parties could theoretically serve this role. I mean, they're supposed to but most of the places, they're so lethargic, they don't even see themselves in that role. So right people who want to do politics and they want to do it, right, they're faced with this question, well, what am I supposed to do? Do I have to build it myself? And the answer and by the way, a lot of people inIndivisible groups and resistance groups on the left over the last four years, did say, we got to start from scratch.

And they did it and they're doing it. And so that's there, but it is an uphill battle, when you have to start a community organization from scratch, what I would say is that politics and political service is this unifying thing. It can't just be of course, it can't just be a rock climbing club that's somehow going to do politics, because there's no mission there. Right. In churches, there's a mission. And in politics, there's a mission of changing the world basically. And that mission can bring people together. And what's happened, I think, unfortunately, with the rise of social media is that TV and internet have just replaced, for a lot of people, that human connection that could otherwise be found in a local organization.

CHRIS HAYES: The last place I want to end up on this is just the idea that in some ways, there's something provocative but maybe weirdly comforting about this idea that the stuff people are doing online doesn't count or doesn't really move things. But then when I think about what the right does in that space, it really does seem to make a big difference. Posting about QAnon actually does introduce this idea to other people. And it actually is the case that these ideas and means really do track along people's social connections.

Now, in this case, I think it's toxic and really bad and insidious. But it is doing a thing out in the world. It is not the case that the growth of QAnon is anything other than an expression of a lot of word of mouth, posting and conversation in, in real life in barber shops, about this insane and dangerous conspiracy theory. But the people that are doing that, they are doing something that is having a pretty profound political impact.

EITAN HERSH: Oh, yeah. It's just that I think we're learning more and more that social media in particular is very powerful in a destructive way and not very powerful in a productive way. I mean, think about research by Zeynep Tufekci about the Arab Spring you can organize on Twitter, a protest that can bring down an authoritarian government. But good luck trying to get that Twitter mob to organize for elections, build a political party, pass legislation. That's what it can’t do.

And so the difference, I think, between the left and the right on this domain is that the left I think does have a bigger prescriptive agenda, the right is much more comfortable with the status quo. And so if you're comfortable with the status quo, then putzing around on Twitter and even engaging in conspiracy theories. Yeah, is not going to change the status quo. And it might just destroy people's ambitions to do anything productive. But you can't do that. You're not going to get climate legislation or solve problems of racial equality through that mechanism.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, no, that's exactly right. There's just a higher burden when you're trying to affirmatively transform things and reform things than when you're you're, I mean, I think the right largely I was having this thought experiment the other day of what would be the first bill if Trump had won and the Republicans have taken the house and McConnell retain the senate? They had all you know, they have both branches of both houses of Congress and the presidency.

If you put aside COVID relief, what's the first big domestic bill? What's the big and there's not, you can't even name it. It's, there is no nothing was named during the campaign is, whereas with Biden, it's... I can imagine immigration bill, I can imagine a climate bill, I can imagine a health care bill but there's a ton of things that progressive want to do. And that goes down to the local level, the most minute local level as well, in terms of housing or transportation accessibility or the policies around policing and all those take work to affirmatively change what is happening.

EITAN HERSH: Right. And I think on social media, I mean, particularly a lefty social media, just because I think I see more of that and I see the right social media, I think people are often in this weird bubble where they think everyone else on the same page as them, whereas actually, the tax implications for policies at the left want are not so popular. And you know, what people are really complicated. Actually, I think the mixed results of this election showcases people are complicated and they're not all it's not possibly a good versus evil or smart versus stupid world we live in.

You can't even convince your neighbors to do one thing to help other people if it's going to cost them money. So in some ways, it's humbling and moderating to think what looks like a polarized world on social media is actually much more nuanced than moderate in real life. On the other hand, if you don't like the status quo, you react to that by thinking, wow, there's a real lot of work to do.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, that's exactly right. Eitan Hersh is a political scientist and associate professor at Tufts University. His book "Politics is for Power, How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action and Make Real Change." It's a really fascinating book, I recommend you pick it up. If you feel you're someone who he's speaking about or to here, I would especially urge you to pick it up. And I'd love to hear feedback from folks. You can tweet us @WITHpod, email us WITHpod@gmail.com. With your own experience with this, I'm curious to hear people who have moved to do things in collective struggle with other people in communion with other people to work on things that are tangible and concrete and what that experience has been Eitan, thanks a lot.

Eitan Hersh: Yeah, thanks so much for having me.

"Why Is This Happening" is presented by MSNBC and NBCNews, produced by the "All In" team and Kate Shaw and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work including links and things we mention here by going to NBCNews.com/WhyIsThisHappening