Aaron Baker: Want less polarization? Look for a new hobby

Thursday, December 6, 2018 - 5:00pm

We live in a country so polarized that it’s hard to imagine having a civil conversation with someone who voted differently than you did. This is a problem.

Polarization, to put it simply, characterizes the trend in American politics in which Republicans and Democrats agree on less and less. A polarized political body is one that can’t compromise. Polarization is deeply concerning for any democracy. Polarization stymies policy from being legislated and thus can undermine democracy to the point of decay. The Weimar Republic, Germany’s experiment with democracy before Adolf Hitler, was undermined deeply by polarization caused by political factions that couldn’t compromise. Leading up to Hitler’s appointment as chancellor, the polarization had gotten so bad that the Reichstag, the German legislature, was unable to pass legislation. Thus, the German president relied on unilateral action through executive decrees, akin to our executive orders, which helped pave the way for Hitler’s abuses of executive power and the rise of the Third Reich. We should all be concerned by the damage polarization is doing to the efficacy and health of our democratic system.

There are whole classes and entire books on the source of political polarization in America. Some say it’s the changing demographics and the approach to a majority-minority nation, which I reject as essentialist thinking that demonstrates racism.  There’s nothing inherent about having a smaller white majority that means our politics will be polarized. Others say it’s social media and the news cycle, which might be true — but it's not like we can get rid of social media or the 24/7 news cycle. Regardless of the sources of the polarization, I can think there’s one pretty straightforward way we can alleviate polarization.

To lessen polarization, we should lessen political hobbyism. Political hobbyism is defined by political scientist Eitan Hersch as “a degraded form of politics that caters to the voyeurism of news junkies and the short attention span of slacktivists.” Political hobbyism is the politics born of a 24/7 news cycle, with social media and the internet cluttering your home screen with notifications. Political hobbyists have a relationship with politics akin to sports fan with sports. Like avid sports fans, political hobbyists have an insatiable interest in politics and a strong emotional investment in politics.  But this interest in politics only serves to provide immediate emotional gratification — either boiling outrage or fervent support — while killing an intent to act in any meaningful way. A political hobbyist will know all about what’s going on, tweet voraciously about politics, then call it a night.

Political hobbyism creates an outrage culture that fuels the atmosphere of polarization. When politics is a sports-like hobby, people lose sight of the purpose of being politically aware in the first place. Knowledge of politics should be to serve political action. If an issue is really important to you, then you should use the knowledge you have about it to take action in whatever way you can. In a democracy, political actions should be ultimately geared toward effecting change, of which changing minds and mobilizing people is often instrumental. This could be done through voting, volunteering for political organizations, engaging in dialogues as rationally and respectfully as possible, fundraising, etc. Anything that does not serve, even indirectly, the advancement of issues you care about through legislation or the enactment of policies is not legitimate political action in my opinion.

I witnessed a good example of non-hobbyist political action at a teach-in on immigration under the Trump administration. An organizer spoke about protesting a speech by an anti-immigration spokesperson held by the University’s chapter of College Republicans. The intent was to change the minds of the people in the audience, not to simply express outrage and deem the speaker and audience members terrible people. The protestors planned to wield signs with facts and images of asylum seekers to refute the speaker’s anti-immigrant arguments.

It’s not that you shouldn’t use heated language or speak passionately, even angrily, or that you shouldn’t tweet about politics. But you should draw a line where you think you could no longer convince a person to agree with you. Getting mad at someone for thinking something you find offensive is understandable. But if you get apoplectic, the conversation has been supplanted by a shouting match, and that person will never agree with you. Nothing is stopping the spread of ideological polarization when people don’t care about achieving compromise through dialogues and rational exchanges. Remembering that compromise is an indispensable modality of democracy could check ideologues and the theatrics of political hobbyists that further polarizes our politics.

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche thought history needed to be used only to help the living act in the present. A student who studied history excessively would have no will to take action, because they would spend all of their time and energy reconstructing and studying the past. The proper use of history is to inspire novel pursuits in the present and future. Political hobbyists, which all of us are to some degree, should consider adopting this advice to their relationship to politics. Interest in politics should primarily be about readying yourself to act in accordance with your beliefs and interests, of which changing minds is often paramount to achieve in our democratic system. Growth is a facet of all human experience. Were you the same person, with the same views, three years ago? I definitely wasn’t. Keep this in mind when talking to people who disagree with you. Just because they don’t agree with you now doesn’t mean they won’t ever change their mind. If we reframe how we think about politics to be rooted in taking action, we can take an important step to alleviating the polarization that is tearing our country apart.

Aaron Baker can be reached at aaronbak@umich.edu.