A simple model of political engagement
It's hard to know how to be a responsible citizen these days. What does it mean to engage with politics? How can anyone be informed and knowledgeable in an environment where anyone can produce political content, fake news spreads faster than verified information, and integrity is increasingly difficult to recognize? I’ve reflected on these dilemmas and developed what I’m calling a simple model of political engagement, and I’ve drawn it out as a Venn diagram. The model can help anyone make choices about their own engagement with politics, and to understand how those choices interact with others’ choices.
It would be easy to think of political engagement using the framework of basic economics, where engagement is like a transaction between consumers and producers. Most people are regular consumers of political information, even if they do so only casually or even unintentionally. People engage with politics when stories show up in their news feed, or they learn about neighborhood controversies, or have casual banter with political themes among friends. This consumption is a form of political engagement. Some smaller set of people produces political content with commentary, reporting, analysis, proposals, or ideas. The way social media works, the set of political producers is larger than it used to be, but it’s not always clear that’s a good thing.
Let me suggest that there’s a third category of political engagement: observers. Observers are like a cultural anthropologist embedded among a population to study it. Observers are neutral, nonjudgmental, non-participatory, and mindful about their purpose.
Everywhere I look these days people are talking about mindfulness. Teachers, employers, marriage counselors, healthcare providers—it seems like the tenants of Buddhism are gaining popularity as people promote mindful approaches towards all types of human activity as a way to improve productivity, health, and one’s general state of happiness. But I’ve not often heard this advice given with respect to political engagement.
As a social scientist, I’ve been trained to be a neutral observer of the world. In a way, a social scientist’s method is a form of mindfulness. As a political scientist, I find that engaging with current events in a dispassionate way has a number of positive benefits. When I consume politics as an observer, I am in a better position to learn, update, and expand my point of view. It has downsides, too. An objective bystander does not get riled up about injustices that may be worth getting riled up about.
While most people tend to think of the world as being made of producers and consumers, it’s also made of observers. And if we look at where these categories overlap with respect to politics, it can give us a model for understanding our own means of engagement, and a way of understanding the roles others are playing.
Rather than thinking of the world as being made of producers and consumers, consider also that there are observers. This model could be applied to nearly any industry or activity in life, but I want to explain what this model means when applied to political engagement.
Let me describe each of these circles and their intersections.
Most people are passive consumers of politics, but aren’t really engaged with producing it or standing in observation of it. One who lurks in social media but never engages, is a consumer, but not a producer. Someone who reads the news regularly and discusses politics casually, consumes, but does not produce, politics.
What kind of person produces political content without consuming it? One who makes stuff up. One who produces politics, but does not consume or observe it in any way is an uninformed content creator. This might be a social media disrupter, fake news outlet, or right-wing radio talk show that generates conspiracy theories.
Those who observe politics, but who are not involved with producing or consuming it, are academics like political scientists or historians. A social scientist is most strongly engaged with making nonjudgmental observations about politics, without necessarily producing new content about it, or even necessarily consuming current events. As soon as a political scientist publishers research about her observations, she is in the cross-section of producer-observers. Academic journals live in this corner of the world.
Looking at the intersection of consumers and observers, we’re talking about people who consume politics regularly and make observations about politics, but not public ones. This might include lobbyists. A smart lobbyist makes careful observations about politics and stays abreast of the latest developments in the world, but probably doesn’t broadcast their thoughts to anyone but their paid clients.
Those who both consume and produce politics include most mainstream media, elected officials, candidates, and activists. These are people who are both reacting to events as they unfold, and engaging in behaviors that are a part of a broader political narrative.
At the center of the Venn diagram we have the intersection of political consumption, production, and observation. It’s here where I aim to be, most days. And I’d like to convince more people that it’s a pretty attractive vantage point, especially in a chaotic, polarized, upsetting, and disruptive political environment. In this spot, we find the best of news analysis. When someone is up-to-date in their consumption of what’s happening, and able to observe it in a way that brings insight, then produce enlightening takes on what it all means, it contributes added value to the world. A keen political observer and communicator improves everyone else’s understanding and appreciation of the world. It's certainly the case that Mischiefs of Faction aims to be at the center of the Venn diagram, adding value to political engagement.
On its best days, my twitter feed looks like the center of the Venn diagram, and I’m better off for it. On my best days, I can share my observations and insights with my students, collaborators, followers, and readers in ways that expand their comprehension.
With the exception of the producers of fake news, I am not passing judgment of any of these categories, and no one person or outlet is in one of these categories or intersections all of the time. If everyone is a bit more mindful of which part of the circle they are operating in at any given time, their political engagement can be more valuable, productive, and a positive contribution to political discourse and activity. Where is your political engagement today?