Bystanders Stand Up

As men who have used their power and privilege to harass and assault women and children continue to be called out and sometimes punished (others are elevated to the White House), the discussion has expanded to include the role of bystanders—those who knew, but turned a blind eye.

Speaking out—not just by victims, but by all of us, particularly men–will be crucial to change the culture. Offenders must make amends. Bystanders must become upstanders.

We see this in the political realm as well. Jeff Flake, following his impassioned concession speech from the Senate floor excoriating his fellow Republicans for tolerating Trump’s behavior, wrote in the New York Times,” to have a vital democracy, there can be no bystanders.”

And yet there are plenty—not only Republican enablers in Congress, but among voters.

The United States has one of the lowest rates of voter turnout among western democracies: According to the Pew Research Center, we rank 28th among 35 OECD countries. This is partly because many other governments take the lead in promoting voter registration, whereas the responsibility falls mainly to individuals in the United States. A confusing patchwork of rules, access, and requirements that vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction further complicates voting. The Pew report points out that the percentage of voting-eligible Americans who register is much lower than in similar democracies. Additional impediments include seemingly innocuous ones such as Election Day occurring on a weekday. And, of course, there are brazenly discriminatory barriers like restrictive voter ID laws, the denial of civil rights, and other forms of voter suppression.

But another huge factor is voter apathy.  I have done a lot of phone banking in the past several years, and I can’t keep track of the number of respondents who tell me that “Politics has nothing to do with me,” “They’re all the same,” and “What difference does it make?”

A lot, actually, as anyone who hasn’t been in a coma for the last year can attest.

In the 2016 presidential election, about 58% of voting-eligible Americans voted. This was about the same as the 2012 election, and a few percentage points below 2008’s turnout. There are a lot of reasons Donald Trump now tweets from the Oval Office, but one of them is that his campaign was successful in turning out a higher proportion of swing state white rural voters than turned out for Romney in 2012, while Clinton lost ground from Obama’s 2012 tally in those same crucial areas. Social science research has found that conservative/Republican voters tend to value loyalty more and therefore coalesce around their party’s candidates, whereas liberal/Democratic voters—especially young ones–are less inclined to do so.

Mid-term and off-year elections are decided by even fewer people. The United States Elections Project estimates that only 36.4 percent of voting-eligible Americans bothered to vote in 2014. That’s when Democrats lost control of the U.S. Senate, just as they lost control of the House, many statehouses, and redistricting in the 2010 mid-terms, with devastating, long-term consequences.

But as with the sexual misconduct revelations, perhaps people are waking up to the consequences of being a political bystander. A robust resistance has arisen against the current administration, with more people running for public office from the local to national level than ever before. The surprisingly large Democratic victories in Virginia underscore the impact of moving from bystander to participant: Turnout was the highest it’s been in 20 years for a gubernatorial election. Voters aged 18-29 came out in especially high numbers, doubling their turnout rate since 2009. More than two-thirds of the youth vote went to the uncharismatic Democratic candidate for governor, and an astonishing 15 (and counting) seats in the House of Delegates flipped from Republican to Democrat.

In the realm of sexual misconduct and abuse, people who formerly stayed silent are finding their voice. We are witnessing a hopeful sea-change as a result. In the realm of politics, your vote is your voice. Perhaps we will see a similarly encouraging sea-change as more bystanders understand how necessary it is to stand up and speak out.