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Republican members of Congress have a haunted look about them. Ordinarily, this is the time of year when they are in the best mood — the April recess is here, meaning a few friendly, sparsely attended town hall meetings, and then home early for family dinner.
Not this year. Many are facing large, well-organized crowds who are out for blood. Even in deep red states like Utah and South Carolina, progressive groups are making these events a living hell for the Republicans, just as the Tea Partyers did to Democrats early in President Barack Obama’s first term. Knowing what they’ll face, many Republicans are bailing out of town halls altogether.
Is this kind of political protest good for American democracy or bad? And is the best response to cancel the meetings or show up and take your lumps? One’s answer often depends on who is doing the protesting. Many liberals who disdained the Tea Party revolt like the progressive “resistance” movement, and for conservatives the inverse.
For a more objective view, we should turn to history and social science. Many of America’s founders saw protests as a useful force against tyranny and believed crowds could still act with restraint and self-discipline. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in a 1787 letter to Abigail Adams, “I like a little rebellion now and then.” Clearly, the man feared aloof and insulated leaders more than he feared ochlocracy (mob rule).
But American philosophers have usually held a more jaundiced view of crowds. Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal, “The mass never comes up to the standard of its best member, but on the contrary degrades itself to a level with the lowest.” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in “The Conduct of Life”: “Masses are rude, lame, unmade, pernicious in their demands and influence, and need not to be flattered, but to be schooled. I wish not to concede anything to them, but to tame, drill, divide, and break them up, and draw individuals out of them.”
These thinkers argued that crowds add up to something less than the sum of their parts. The principle behind this is called “deindividuation,” in which an individual’s social constraints are diminished and distorted by being part of a crowd that forms to express a particular point of view. The French psychologist Gustave Le Bon first explained this concept in his magisterial 1895 text “The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind.” Le Bon found that crowds were inherently “unanimous, emotional and intellectually weak.”
Lots of research confirms this, showing that deindividuation can lower inhibitions against immoral behavior. In one of my favorite studies, researchers set up a bowl of candy for Halloween trick-or-treaters, told them to take just one piece and then left them alone. Some of the children were in anonymous groups, others were by themselves. When kids were part of a group, 60 percent took more than one piece of candy. When they were by themselves but not asked their names, 20 percent cheated. But when they were alone and asked their names, only 10 percent took more than they were allotted.
Of course, it stands to reason that deindividuation could improve individuals instead of making them worse. We can all think of cases in which we have been swept up in a wave of kindness and compassion in a group, even in spite of our personal feelings. Group polarization, in which individuals are pushed emotionally in the general direction of the crowd, can be either positive or negative.
So are political protest crowds good or bad? The best answer is probably “it depends.” Regardless, they are a fact of life for politicians. The studies above reveal one common error that politicians on both sides make when facing an angry crowd — and one big opportunity.
The common error is when leaders treat the whole group like one individual. Remember Le Bon’s theory that a crowd is stronger, angrier and less ideologically flexible than an individual. Getting irate or defensive will always be counterproductive. Similarly, it is mostly futile to try talking over a protest chant.
The opportunity is to “re-individuate” audience members — to treat people as individuals and not as part of a mass. This is done not by acknowledging questions shouted anonymously but by asking audience members to physically separate from the mass and identify themselves if they wish to speak. When people detach from a group, the research suggests they will become more ethical, rational and intelligent.
Will there still be that former trick-or-treater who would have snatched the whole bowl of candy despite being alone and giving his name? Sometimes. But this approach maximizes the likelihood of a civilized, respectful exchange of ideas and concerns.
A re-individuation strategy is not an attempt to subvert the legitimate political expression of demonstrators. On the contrary, this approach treats a concerned assembly of people as individuals with a right to be heard, as opposed to a faceless mass to be placated. As such, working to re-individuate a crowd is to offer a sign of respect, and it could help forge a path toward civility and intelligence in American politics.
Jefferson, Emerson and maybe even your member of Congress could all agree on that.
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