Some people do accept the burdens of mutual dependence and the risks of local leadership because they have needs, desires and fears that community helps them address; others choose to stay home, out of the fray. The spiritual-but-not religious identifier and the political hobbyist share a mentality that is deliberately powerless, rejecting community to avoid the hassle and to avoid getting burned.
At times, religious and political hobbyists can feel connected to community even when they aren’t pitching in to one: perhaps finding a spiritual connection in the charm of the twinkling lights of December or a sense of solidarity in an uplifting moment for their political allies. But in the gloom of late January, when the holiday parties are over, and in the darkness of political defeat — when their preferred presidential candidate is no longer in the running or the impeachment trial isn’t going how they dreamed it would — the now-melancholy religious and political hobbyists lack any communal routine to motivate them.
The regular churchgoers still have their community, and the active local political organizations have their regular meetings. Churchgoing Republicans, for instance, can still leverage the power of community even when their leader is flawed or they feel down. Many on the religious right are pained by President Trump’s behavior but believe him to be the best available vehicle for their political goals. So they persist.
The increasingly nonreligious Democratic Party may continue to stay away from religious communities, even though research has found that religious participation, no matter the orthodoxy of beliefs, corresponds to greater involvement in civic and charitable work, and to higher degrees of happiness, and it also generates the social capital that can be leveraged for political activism.
But if liberals also shy away from face-to-face political communities, choosing to spend their free hours as at-home hobbyists rather than participating in weekly political meetings and canvasses, they should expect to reap as little as they sow. Politics is about getting power to enact an agenda. It’s about working in groups to turn one vote into more than one vote, one voice into more than one voice, by getting others on board with you. If you aren’t doing that, you aren’t doing politics. But hey, congratulations on your interesting hobby.
Across the country, I have studied local political organizations on the left and in the center where neighbors take care of one another just as they would in a congregation, and through this mutual aid and support, they find strength to accomplish not just psychic and social goals but political goals, too. But to unseat an incumbent president or to make progress on policies they care about, a lot more people will have to abandon the mind-set of leaderless and powerless hobbyism. Without buying into real communities and putting faith in local leaders, there can be no redemption.
Eitan D. Hersh, an associate professor at Tufts University, is the author of “Politics Is for Power.”
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