The House of Representatives’ recent struggles to select and keep a speaker have laid bare the danger of cultivating a political class that condemns rational debate and compromise. In recent years, too many Americans have cheered on politicians who villainize and ridicule their opponents, equate them with evil, and refuse to cooperate in any way with the “other side.” Sadly, this venomous attitude has emboldened too many elected leaders to abandon any willingness to listen, respect, and settle differences, even amongst themselves. We shouldn’t be surprised. When bad behavior gets rewarded, it spreads. Last year, my husband and I got a direct taste of it ourselves.
The letter came in a plain white envelope with our address hand-written in shaky blue script. Inside, the simple typed paper greeted us as “you two Gay, Liberal pieces of s---” It admonished us for views we had recently expressed during a controversy involving our community council. “Just keep your liberal asses home and watch MSNBC and CNN and shut the f--- up,” the writer continued, “nobody gives a flying s--- on your views.” In closing, we were reassured that he (or she?) had “no desire to ever associate with useless, arrogant liberal pieces of s--- like you two Biden voters.” Never mind that we’re an old straight couple who doesn’t watch MSNBC or CNN. A handmade Biden yard sign in 2020, coupled with our speaking up on the council issue, was enough to mark us as evil.
We’ve lived in our neighborhood for more than 20 years and know many of our neighbors as friendly people who look out for each other. We pull each other out of ditches, warn each other of roaming bears, and share alerts about natural threats or suspicious activity. We’ve rallied to defeat inappropriate development projects and advocated for a variety of neighborhood causes. But we’ve long been divided politically. And while some of us display candidate signs and host fundraisers during campaign seasons — across the political spectrum — we generally keep our politics to ourselves during neighborhood events. I’ve always assumed that we share an attitude of mutual respect, notwithstanding our differences. But obviously, the storm of hatred and disdain that has poisoned our national discourse now strikes close to home.
The letter was anonymous, of course, signed “Your (Neighborhood) Friends.” The handwriting and contents offered few clues to the writer’s identity. We wonder at the occasional neighbor who no longer smiles and waves at us, who no longer looks us in the eye. But honestly, we don’t worry about who sent the letter. It represents just one more example of the rapid degradation of civic engagement that continues to grip our country, just one more person lobbing expletives anonymously because it’s easier and less accountable than making a commitment to responsible citizenship.
What we worry about instead is the bigger picture: a nation besieged by political leaders who embrace offensive behavior to show their willingness to break all norms of decency and democracy to achieve their ends. A nation of citizens like our neighbor who follow suit — using slurs and threats to intimidate those who exercise their right to hold a different point of view. Is it any wonder that the same folks who brought us such a scorched-earth approach to governance — one that delegitimizes and dehumanizes whatever and whoever stands in its way — would now have trouble finding common ground? Is it any wonder that they would rather drag our country into crises like a leaderless House and a potential government shutdown than give an inch, even to their allies?
The risk of celebrating abuse and intransigence extends far beyond the recent stalemates over the speaker of the House. To insist on getting one’s own way — always — in a vastly diverse country governed “of the people, by the people, and for the people” is to reject the principles of democracy altogether. “The people” means all of us, in all our differences, and addressing our many challenges requires give and take. To demonize and shut out those who disagree, and to refuse any possibility of compromise, is the work of tyrants, not freedom-loving people.
Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor once said, “A healthy democracy depends on the participation of citizens, and that participation is learned behavior; it doesn’t just happen.” As a nation and a community, we have fallen short in building and strengthening public understanding of the basic principles of our democracy, and we now face the consequences of our neglect. Isn’t it time we embrace a vision of America where everyone knows their rights and responsibilities and feels safe taking part and being heard? And isn’t it time we stop taking lessons on civic discourse from extremists who allow only one opinion — their own?
Barbara Hood is a retired attorney and businesswoman who lives in Anchorage.
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