Has democracy become a hobby?
Consider: has political involvement become “just a thing” that a few fanatical pundits are into that does not “resonate” with the rest of mainstream culture? Like a Star Trek convention, a religious festivity,1 or a sports team’s fan club, is the political arena so much a subculture that it is viewed as an extracurricular activity — an optional elective — to the rest of one’s generic, civic life?
Perhaps politics is hobby-like because it is has been designed to feel like a club. With it’s color schemes and catchy slogans, partisanship fabricates a fraternity mentality that does more to detract from the essence of democratic participation than facilitate it. Example: While volunteering for a recent political campaign, a friend of mine was a given a colored scarf to wear that matched the color and brand of the political party. From what I can deduce, a colored scarf has absolutely nothing to do with either policy or discourse on economic recovery, health care, income inequity, or environmental leadership. The scarf is solely about marketing a product and selling a brand. The difference between a colored political scarf and a pro-sport team jersey is, well, nothing.
Whatever political engagement means, more and more of us (the population as a whole) apparently see it as a irrelevant expenditure of time, an optional sector for the crazies who find “that kind of thing” interesting. What are the social and governance consequences of this sweeping indifference? I can’t venture to predict, but on more pessimistic days I can easily theorize some less-than-hopeful long-term scenarios.
If Western democracy is going to be rescued from the “hobby-ization” of the political system, it will only be because citizens decide to take citizenship seriously. Citizenship, unlike lawn signs, involves everyone who inhabits the same socio-geographic space. Citizenship is about the questions and issues we all must face together. Where and when citizens take their shared concerns seriously, “political engagement” is not just counted by voter-turnout metrics, but by a collective articulation of what it means to be interdependent. Unless we learn to be citizens — participating in the joys, challenges and futures of our own neighborhoods — how do we expect to live in a democracy that is anything more than a nicely glossed brochure?2