The other day I decided to take a walk through one of Atlanta’s busiest business districts. I needed to clear my head after several consecutive days of staring at a computer screen, and one of the best ways I’ve found to do that is to go people-watching.
The people-watching in Atlanta is just top notch. Life moves fast here. Some 400,000 people are going to some 400,000 destinations and life goals, and yet everybody (except on the interstate) seems to get along without too much trouble.
My people-watching expedition was going great. I was strolling back in the direction of my nearest Chik-fil-A. You could say I was in a good mood. It was going to be a good day.
Then I met the poor folks holding the signs on the side of the road. I didn’t see a more miserable-looking bunch of folks in all of my morning walk, and I genuinely felt bad for them. I did not feel inspired. I felt embarrassed.
I’m sure they held their beliefs sincerely. They seemed decent. I even sympathized with their concerns. Still, I just gave them a nice nod and kept walking.
I felt embarrassed because there was nothing in their appearance or their presentation of their ideas that made me want to engage them. They were just sitting in the cold, staked out on a street, waiting for people to notice them.
What’s more, I felt like they were doing the very bare minimum of effort while thinking that they were putting their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor on the line.
What made them sit it out? And what made their effort so ineffective?
The Crowd as a Political Tool
We’re told from our first civics lesson that mass movement is THE way to effect social change – that we have to form into groups and hold our signs up together in order to be heard.
We have to have enough bumper stickers.
We have to have enough yard signs.
We have to have enough votes.
We have to have enough warm bodies marching in our procession.
There are some problems with these lines of thinking, though they may be well-intentioned.
The crowd as political tool is disempowering.
“The crowd” by definition is people other than you. When you think a crowd is your only tool, every problem becomes bigger than your own creative ability or initiative to solve it.
For one thing, you have to wait on a crowd to show up, and unless your ideas are particularly atrocious (see: 2016 political candidates), they’re not going to. So you end up in a group of five sitting bundled up on a cold Atlanta street, and people ignore you.
The crowd as a political tool is mindless and heartless.
At a certain scale, people lose the ability to have a common purpose or a common rallying cry.
See Occupy Wall Street, Tea Party, or Black Lives Matter movements for example. No one really knows what these groups stand for because they can’t stand for anything – their constituent members sometimes believe radically different things. The result? The crowd becomes a way to act out anger or reaction without a philosophy.
A crowd can do some things, but a crowd cannot talk. A crowd cannot engage in a conversation. A crowd cannot have ideas. A crowd can make a lot of noise. And most people tune out noise.
The crowd as a political tool favors majorities.
If recent examples are any indication, the crowd as a political tool has done little except to entrench majority positions (the majority group sees BLM or Tea Party and is more able to caricature opposing views) or to install popular dictators or demagogues (Caesars, fascist and communist dictators, American presidents) for the majority.
The crowd as a political tool is fundamentally broken.
There are obviously notable exceptions, and these observations won’t apply across the board in every scenario. However, mass movements which correlate to positive outcomes (like the civil rights movement) often arise after and in response to the real groundwork of change laid through direct action (whether it’s education or art or civil disobedience or entrepreneurship_.
The “everyone comes together and wears V for Vendetta masks and everything changes and it’s awesome” image is another idol image in a string of idols in the world of political change.
I won’t deny the power of an occasional mass revolt (when most effective, they’re actually least visible), but there are better ways for those people to have their voices heard. And I think now people are starting to figure that out.
In part 2, we’ll look at the alternatives to the crowd as political tool. I’ll make the case that there are faster, more fulfilling, more enjoyable, more affordable, more direct, and more empowering ways to make the world more beautiful and just.