There is a popular term in political parlance which describes
those who forcefully participate in a political campaign or
cause. It is the term “activist.” But what is the word for those
who are notably less personally involved in such events? Is it
the term “passivist?” That word describes the contrary action,
but in a time such as we now seem to be in --- a time of major
political change and transformation --- I don’t think the term
adequately portrays the true impact of someone who is not
an “activist.” I think a better term is “bystander.”
We usually think of history in the past tense, i.e, events that
have already occurred. History, in this sense, is something we
read about, study, argue over, and perhaps try to learn from.
Because this sense of history is no longer in front of our eyes,
it becomes ambiguous. We can ‘interpret” it in many ways.
This was especially true before the invention of visual and
sound methods of recording. The inventions of the still
photograph, the phonograph, film and tape and video recording
made history less intangible. They created “evidence” of
past historical events, and increasingly influence public opinion
in local, national and global terms.
But visual history-in-the-making, or in the present tense, can
also be ambiguous, since it is almost impossible to present an
an objective “total picture” of an event or circumstance.
Television, the cinema and now the internet, including “social
media” offer us broader and faster “news,” but these
techniques also can and do distort history-in-the making.
Landmarks in what I am talking about including the photographs
of the U.S civil war, films of the battlefields of World War I,
documentary films of the Holocaust concentration camps,
photographic images of Hiroshima and and Nagasaki in 1945,
and videos of the Persian Gulf War in 1991 -- each
of which communicated to successive generations of large
populations the powerful and terrible impact of violent war
There is also the larger sense of history as a continuous human
journey, that is, something which cannot be accurately presented
just with recordings of sight and sound, but which is indefinitely
occurring around and including each of us.
Life today in our American or European societies is both
complicated and relatively free of restraints, especially in
comparison to the distant or even recent past. This is the natural
result of such rapid advances in communications, transportation,
electronic technology and medicine. Huge events can occur near
or far from us, but we can for the most part ignore them in the
course of our daily lives with little apparent consequences.
The citizens of the U.S. are now engaged in their quadrennial
presidential and biennial congressional elections. These always
bring with them a certain noise and melodrama, as well as a
new cast of political characters. The political combat, we need
to recall, is always heated and often vitriolic.
But the 2016 cycle does seem to have some different character ---
at least in contrast with the cycles I have observed and written
about since 1972. Prior to, during and just after 1972, the nation
endured some searing traumas, including the assassination of
the president in 1963, the antiwar movement after that, and the
unprecedented resignation of both the vice president and the
president in 1973-74. By the 1980s and beyond, however, there
seemed to be a reasonable continuity, albeit with political
change and reversal. Political life and practice evolved, but with
comforting precedents and understandable directions.
One of the “disruptions” of 2016 seems to be the entrance of
new groups of “activists” into the political process. These
include substantial numbers of those who have not previously
voted and younger voters. This has been quite unnerving to the
established political class because various conventional
techniques of political communication and measurement are
no longer working. These include mass mailings, traditional
polling methods, political advertising and organizational
methodologies. In short, voters are now very hard to measure and
to influence by the methods and devices of the past.
I have described some of these phenomena as “mutinies” of the
left, right and center. It also can be described as the rise of new
groups of “activists” who were formerly bystanders in American
I think it is a mistake, as some of the old establishments in both
parties are suggesting, to think this is a very temporary
phenomenon that will pass away after the election.
The dynamics of what is happening in 2016 are composed not only
of economic, national security and social issues and conditions,
but of true generational issues and identities. Many ideological
stereotypes are being swept aside.
If you ask me, this is no time, no matter what you have been in the
past, to be just a bystander.
Copyright (c) 2016 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.