The Four-Year Locusts
This essay was originally posted on September 22, 2018.
Every four years, locusts descend on America. They tear through civic society, devouring any organization or community they can reach. Ideological movements, charitable causes, even hobbyist communities—all are food, to be ripped apart and turned into more buzzing drones, serving no ends but the swarm’s. When it finally disperses, it leaves behind a trail of wounded communities and withered institutions.
I am talking, of course, about the presidential election cycle.
As the election season gets underway, we are told that the enemy is uniquely evil, the foundations of the country are uniquely vulnerable, and if the wrong guy gets in then everything will be on a downward trajectory that could destroy all goodness and light in America. You may recall this from the elections of 2016, 2012, 2008, and to a lesser extent 2004. (I’m too young to remember 2000 very clearly. Perhaps it was different, that far back; this has been getting worse over the years.)
The cycle starts with the journalists. It’s an interesting question how much of this stems from a genuine belief that this election is the turning point, and how much is a cynical ploy for readership, influence, and funding, but the effect is the same either way. The front pages and news programs are overrun by public statements, gaffes, and poll numbers, while op-eds and talk shows lend their voice to the chorus of doom.
The swarm swiftly makes its way online. At first it acts through the self-crowned thinkfluencers who follow a quarter-step behind the media juggernauts, but it doesn’t stop there. The ideas are tailored to turn regular people into chanting mouths repeating the same slogans in the same dire tones, and it’s only getting more virulent as time goes on. In 2016, for the first time, a great many of my European and Australian internet friends were taken by the swarm. They spent hours haranguing strangers on the internet, they strained friendships to the breaking point, they spent sleepless nights imagining the terrors the enemy would inflict if they won—all for an election on the other side of the world, where they couldn’t even vote.
And then finally the great day has come and gone, and for many the hated enemy is in power, yet somehow things are not so bad as they seemed. Slowly, over a month or two, people calm down. The previous administration’s legislation isn’t quite overturned. People forget that they were seriously worried about widespread attacks on gay men, or the repeal of the Second Amendment, or whichever fantasy sent them into a panic. Yet the damage to civic society remains.
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Let’s look closer at what happens to communities and institutions. The swarm doesn’t just go after individuals. Groups are a natural place for it to feed. Any functional community is a concentration of engaged people who trust each other, brought together by a core of organizational resources. If the swarm can consume those resources, so much the better. So, naturally, the memeplex has come to include that you should bring your community into the righteous struggle. Purge the enemy. Recruit the masses. Dispatch foot soldiers to the larger fight. If even a small faction is following this plan, political discourse will dominate the community. Those who resist this are shouted down as missing the bigger picture, or even as enemy collaborators.
The community’s original purpose suffers as energy is directed elsewhere. The most dedicated members retain their original commitment, so they’re the most likely to leave in disgust as they realize how fickle their peers are, or to simply seek a private space where they can discuss their purpose without being distracted by the swarm. As the most dedicated drift away, the community hollows out.
I have seen this happen many times, including to some of the more fertile intellectual spaces in the public sphere. To speak of 2016 alone, on the left, the election kicked the effective altruism movement from slow decline into free-fall. Meanwhile, on the right, neoreaction was cannibalized by the alt-right hordes which it helped spawn, with only a fragment remaining intact in self-imposed isolation. In spaces where neither side wins a decisive victory, the result is ongoing conflict; to this day Twitter remains far more combative than it was in 2015.
* * * * *
What should one do about this? Can anything be done?
While the swarm is too big to defeat entirely, local defense is possible. Some areas can be kept clear. What is precious can be guarded. The swarm is temporary; you need only outlast it.
First and foremost, protect yourself. Do not give the swarm more of yourself than you choose. They will tell you that this fight is the most important, that this enemy is the most dangerous, that yours are the only words which can sway your friends and family to the light; this is a lie, even if the swarm’s agent believes it as he exhorts you to join him. Most people would do better to mind their business, as Ben Franklin would say, than to lose themselves in someone else’s fight. Do your job, tend to your household, cultivate friendships, fall in love. If you’re trying to change the world, then stick with whichever plan seemed wise during the midterm elections. That said, if you have thought about it soberly and still think it best to participate in the struggle, then do exactly as much as makes sense, in exactly the ways that make sense, and no more.
Under no circumstances should you pressure anyone else to join the swarm.
If you are part of a community that you want to preserve, make preparations to defend yourselves. Maybe the community leaders should agree to be on watch for political arguments that get out of hand, and to shut them down as they occur. Maybe your events will need an explicit “no politics” rule. Maybe you’ll have to ban repeat offenders from your group chat. I have no universal recommendation; much depends on the details of your situation. Even if you prepare well, know that some of your peers will be taken by the swarm. Decide ahead of time what to do about that. The threat is larger for groups that are more valuable to devour (larger, better organized, more money, more influential, etc) and groups that are memetically adjacent to the swarm (i.e., more political), while it is lower for groups with better intrinsic defenses (high morale, skilled narrative leaders, etc).
For the foreseeable future, at least, the swarm is a force of nature which must be reckoned with. Stay focused, stay calm, and mind your business.
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