Rejecting the bystander effect in American democracy

If there ever was a time to promote civic engagement with our political systems, it's now. There are more of us than them.

Rejecting the bystander effect in American democracy
Blink O’fanaye / Flickr Commons

Hey newsletter readers! Happy New Year. This post contains a lot of thoughts that have been churning inside me around the anniversary of the January 6 Capitol riot. It’s a bit of a shift from the usual here, but I hope it’ll stoke your imagination.

This is catharsis, so no paywall on this one.

I worry about whether the United States political system is experiencing a type of bystander effect. The term is typically invoked in medical and psychological fields to describe why individuals are so less likely to assist others while part of a crowd. (In situations that don’t involve crowds, those same individuals will hesitate less before springing to action.) The general explanation as I understand it is that people will generally wait to see if someone else will do something first.

We can’t be content with bystander politics. Those who are seeking to undermine democracy at this moment sure aren’t. Leaders of homegrown anti-democratic movements have specifically instructed their followers to engage in the political process, achieve whatever modicum of power they can, and wield that power to weaken the basic functions of the U.S. election system. This participation in the granular mechanisms of democracy for explicitly anti-democratic ends is strategic; it is assumed (often correctly) that lower rank Party and public positions will be easier to obtain and then leverage against larger apparatuses toward their goals. The immediate victims of this corrosion will inevitably be non-white voters, who have seen their communities targeted with bogus “voter fraud” claims for decades.

High-level Republican politicians have invested their time since the Capitol attack in re-writing the history of the riot into something their base voters will accept as less nefarious and rational. Right-wing media kingmakers like Tucker Carlson are actively spreading extremist sentiments among Republican voters, nearly verbatim from hate groups. Extremist groups have evolved and adapted to their spaces in the post-January 6 world online and offline, and some have even made notable gains. Talks of a “national divorce” have received buy-in from conservative institutions like the Claremont Institute and leading right-wing media outlets. And the GOP figures who aren’t actively participating in this sprawl have largely remained silent as it has all played out.

(Shameless Plug: More on the last year in extremism can be found in this 40+ page report I published last week at work.)

None of this should be happening in a vacuum.

The best thing the Average Joe can do right now is something. Whether it is building communities of people who share positive and inclusive values, joining or organizing productive conversations and demonstrations, or even contesting for some of these offices the anti-democratic movement is vying for. If you have specific skills, look for places to apply them. Some efforts will inevitably flop, but it can at the very least act as friction on an otherwise icy slope. And if it works, you also get to use that power to try to make good things happen.

The point is participation. We can’t be bystanders. As alarming as this current trajectory is, there are still more people who care about the integrity of this country than those who wish to dissolve it and make things even more unequal. It’s time we act like it.

The anti-democratic right is efficiently acknowledging longstanding social disorder to sway disaffected audiences toward policies that would effectively deepen and further inflame those very problems. This movement has been able to swell thanks to the rise of Trump as a strongman figure and its willingness to acknowledge at least some level of the societal sickness and corruption so often paid empty lip service by the mainstream and moderate political classes. The narratives they weave from these vague and often valid vibes of breakdown are exploitative and exclusionary, but a social movement has arisen nonetheless.

A social movement can not be fact-checked or de-platformed into the void. Those approaches may work well in individual cases, and can be useful for curbing influence of specific dangerous individuals and organizations. But it is ultimately a treatment for a symptom of the larger rot. Social movements are fluid, and as we’ve seen in far-right propaganda spaces online there’s always another person (or platform) in line to pick up the rhetorical torch. That’s to say these things are important, but they aren’t magic tonics on their own.

Social movements have to be drowned out and rejected. Doing this requires clear moral vision, community, and urgency that is woefully missing from many of our political conversations currently. Anti-democratic masses have those qualities, as perverse as their versions of them are, so the rest of us should too. Despite the name of this podcast and newsletter, we can not actually shitpost our way through this. (Send your boo-ing to @shtpostpodcast on Twitter.)

Part of this is also acknowledging the work that some are already engaged in and finding ways to empower it. Generally speaking, media coverage of this issue has grown stronger and beat reporters have been as relentless as ever in delivering facts about the situation. The committee in the U.S. House has been aggressively researching and investigating January 6, and its work is starting to enter its public-facing stage. Communities around the country are making genuine efforts to grapple with these issues. And things are happening in the grassroots, too.

Last week, I sat on a panel with some of my favorite researchers to talk about the year since January 6, 2021. Near the end of that panel, we discussed candlelight vigils that were held on the night of the anniversary in support of people arrested for storming the Capitol. Shannon Hiller, of Princeton’s Bridging Divides Initiative (BDI), reminded the panel that pro-democracy events were also occurring that night and made an important point about focus and context. She said this:

There’s also a lot of [pro-democracy] vigils happening around the country today seeking to unify the country and tell a story about how we could move forward together and actually commemorate this day together. […] How do we put these events [like January 6] and these negative narratives in context of the other positive work that is going on? I’d bet that our reporting by the end of the week is going to show that there’s been much greater turnout at these vigils looking to advance a unified narrative than [the] relatively minor turnout at these more problematic events.

From my best guess looking at social media in the days after, Shannon was right. There seemed to be a drastically better turnout at those pro-democracy vigils. And whether you think a candlelight vigil for democracy is cringe or not, these are clear examples of communities that are trying to do something to promote a positive message that can unite and empower people.

And that’s something we could use a whole lot more of right now.

Precisely because it’s something.

If you read this and had thoughts, sound off in the comment section here or shoot me a message on Twitter. I’d love to talk about this more and hear others’ perspectives.