The bystander effect refers to the ironic probability that the more people who see a victim in distress, the less chance there is any of them will stop to help. This phenomenon characterizes our collective response to the incivility and political dysfunction that dominates America's governing institutions today.
What does this imply for our ability to govern ourselves effectively? With the U.S. government forced into a shut down and Congress unable to carry out its constitutional responsibility to pass a budget, it's easy to despair. On Capitol Hill and in the media, the blame game is roaring. This blaming does nothing to address the country's urgent challenges and only pits people against one another, making lasting resolution even more distant. Americans with whom we have worked all across the country are frustrated and even embarrassed by the state of our democracy, once revered as a model for the world. Something must be done urgently.
People see the problem from many different perspectives, identify different factors as primarily responsible, and offer solutions that find little consensus. The factors are complex and these are just a few we hear Americans concerned about: Redistricting and divisive state primaries crowd out moderate voices. Extremist voices and attack ads feed polarization. Issues and elections are influenced by unprecedented amounts of money made possible by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. Perceptions of intractable conflict describe America's current political system.
In this toxic climate, compromise is dismissed as weak and naïve. Today's constant campaign culture has turned our deliberative bodies into political theater. The institutional procedures essential for civil bipartisan discourse have given way to round-the-clock posturing. Reelection, personal ambition, and party advantage now take precedence over bipartisan cooperation, which is essential to effective governance. Political leaders who would defy party leadership, powerful special interests, or the most ideological members of their own party's "base" fear being thrown out in the next primary--the equivalent of political suicide for exercising courage.
For the rest of us, the cocoons of like-mindedness where we sometimes retreat have become echo chambers allowing us to avoid challenging our beliefs or respecting those of others. Too often, we accept quick answers to complex problems and pay too much attention to the shrill, sensationalist voices so often championed by the media. Too few public spaces exist for us to meaningfully engage with and listen to one other. Many of us just tune out. And in the end, we get what we vote for or -- for the 40 percent of us who don't exercise our right to vote -- what others vote for.
Given this bleak picture, how do we move forward? It's easy to blame others, turn our backs, and believe that no individual action could possibly improve things. And yet our democracy is only as good as we, the people, make it. Each of us has a choice for how we interpret this situation and therefore how we respond. We can choose to rise above the bickering and finger pointing and recognize that the government shutdown is an opportunity to move our country forward. We all want something better -- because we care about our culture, America's place in the world, and the legacy we leave our children. And even if we don't agree on how to get there, that's still common ground to build on.
There is an urgent need to create space to listen and validate each other. As we offer our perspectives and solutions, let's also acknowledge that there is not one shared problem -- there is the problem as each of us sees it. Once we understand this, it is then incumbent on us to each ask, "How am I perpetuating this situation? What's my responsibility to do something about it?"
The National Institute for Civil Discourse was created as a clarion call to all Americans in the wake of the Tucson mass shooting in 2011 to stand up and make our voices heard to address the incivility and political dysfunction in our country today. We are collaborating with outstanding democracy organizations promoting principled solutions, including needed institutional reforms and respectful dialogue. But we cannot succeed without cross-sector collaboration and widespread citizen engagement.
The bystander effect leads to a diffusion of responsibility in which nobody responds to calls for help. With the government shut down, the call for help is loud and clear. Don't walk on by. As citizens of the United States, we are each 100 percent responsible for protecting our democracy. What actions will we take, individually and collectively, to seize the moment to make our voices heard?
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