engaging America’s interested bystanders

The Google Civic Innovation Team (Kate Krontiris, John Webb, Chris Chapman, and Charlotte Krontiris) have released an important strategic report based on original research. They argue that 48.9% of American adults are “Interested Bystanders” to civic life. These “people are paying attention to issues around them, but not actively voicing their opinions or taking action on those issues.”

Looking more closely at how the Interested Bystanders think about politics and civic life (and the actual civic actions that they take), the Google Team uncovers some interesting gaps. For instance, “many Interested Bystanders believe they have the most power at the local level, [yet] most participants reported voting only at the national level.” They also divide the 48.9% into eight archetypal groups, each of which would respond to different messages and opportunities.

The main implication for civic organizers and innovators: “you don’t have to design for activists or the apathetic. You can design for Interested Bystanders and still reach a huge market of people and have a huge impact.”

Kate Krontiris and colleagues advocate a strategy that sounds, at first glance, different from the argument of my book We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For and the findings of “America’s Civic Renewal Movement: The View from Organizational Leaders” by Eric Liu and me. Both documents argue that we ought to focus on a small (but demographically diverse) cadre of civic leaders in America–not 48.9% but more like 0.5% of the population–because only about one million grassroots organizers have the experience and motivations to engage other Americans in civic life. These are the people who not only attend meetings but call meetings; who not only vote but get out the vote. They are already at work on civic renewal in America but need better tools, policies, funds, and other supports.

It’s important to have more that one strategic proposal on the table, so I enthusiastically welcome the Google report even if it lands in a different place from my own work. In any case, these strategies may turn out to be complementary. The “One Million” grassroots civic leaders about whom I write are essential for reaching the “Interested Bystanders” whom Kate and her colleagues describe. In some ways, the Google Team is writing for the One Million–or for an even smaller set of national leaders who have the capacity to engage the One Million through their organizations. They advise these civic leaders to engage the next 48% of the population, which sounds smart to me.

It is a familiar option to try to change a society by engaging a relatively well-placed minority as leaders. Consider W.E.B Du Bois’ early embrace of the Talented Tenth strategy, for example. The advantage is realism: not everyone is ready to participate, and anyone who tries to catalyze a significant change has too few resources to engage the whole population. The potential disadvantage is exclusivity. Marxist revolutions based on “vanguards” have all turned, in my view, into nightmares.

Thus it is very important to my argument that America’s grassroots civic activists are (empirically) a diverse group–diverse in terms of demographics, styles of engagement, and substantive beliefs. My paper with Eric Liu begins to explore the kinds of people who  engage through Ducks Unlimited, PICO, Tea Party Patriots, and United We Dream, among others. Their diversity is important not only for equity and representativeness but also because there is no serious prospect that people this different from each other could turn into a clique or interest group. The question is whether we can get them all working–in different and even competitive ways–to engage their fellow citizens in public life. The “Interested Bystanders” report is a helpful step.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.