I think a reason the reaction among Republican and Democratic lawmakers to Wednesday’s shooting has been so unified, and mostly devoid of point-scoring, is that members of Congress in both parties are scared of the same thing.
They’re afraid that some disgruntled member of the public is going to try to try to kill them for political reasons. Indeed, members of both parties reported death threats on Wednesday:
Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragan tells me that multiple Democratic members of the House have gotten calls saying “you guys are next.”
— Ema O’Connor (@o_ema) June 14, 2017
Rep. Claudia Tenney’s office says she has received a threatening email sent after shooting. Subject line “One down, 216 to go…”
— Nick Reisman (@NickReisman) June 14, 2017
There’s a lot of discussion about whether the political environment is getting scarier because of irresponsible rhetoric. But I think the issue is broader: We are in a dangerous time, both for the effectiveness of important social institutions and for the physical safety of lawmakers, because of a collapse in public trust in authority.
In 2015, political scientist Nathan Kalmoe wrote for The Washington Post about surveys he conducted in 2010, asking respondents about statements like “some of the problems citizens have with government could be fixed with a few well-aimed bullets.”
Anywhere from 5% to 14% of respondents agreed with each of the violent statements proposed. Those are minorities, but not small minorities; they imply tens of millions of Americans felt favorably about political violence.
Kalmoe found that support for political violence did not vary with party affiliation. But respondents were significantly more likely to agree with calls for political violence if they also doubted that elections make the government responsive to citizens.
Do you think the fraction of Americans who doubt that Washington is responsive to elections has risen or fallen since 2010?
More than ever in my lifetime, people believe the system isn’t working and their opponents are wielding power illegitimately. It’s reasonable for lawmakers to be concerned that, in this environment, people will be more likely to go from grousing about politicians on Facebook to shooting them at a baseball field.
What can be done to get people to calm down, to have greater trust in the federal government and other institutions, and to accept the legitimacy of government authority, so elected officials can feel safe at work again?
The public became disaffected for a reason
The first thing is to note that members of the public have a lot of legitimate reasons to have lost faith in institutions, and to feel disaffected and angry right now. There are also major public policy debates, and it’s right for people to feel strongly about proposed actions of government that would hurt them.
And obviously, current circumstances are less than opportune for rebuilding a sense of federal government legitimacy. This is largely due to various bizarre and infuriating aspects of the 2016 campaign, which culminated in the election of the least popular major-party nominee in the history of polling, despite his failure to win a plurality of the popular vote.
Our current elected officials are doing their jobs in an inherently difficult time. But they should reflect on what they are doing to exacerbate disaffection instead of mitigating it.
I don’t think it was very healthy for the public discourse that two of the leading candidates in the 2016 election spent so much of their time talking about how “rigged” things are. This is a term that counsels disaffection and despair – that paints the political process as futile and encourages supporters to assume any loss was unfair.
I think the tendency of politicians to hyperventilate about the apocalyptic nature of policies they oppose – especially when those policies constitute, in truth, incremental changes to existing systems – has placed much of the country in a permanent and psychologically unhealthy state of panic.
Many things are bad, but politicians are often out there saying they’re even worse. Whatever you thought about Obamacare, it was not “arguably the worst law in our history,” as now-Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska claimed in a campaign video in 2014. And Sasse is supposed to be one of the measured ones.
(Of course, politicians have had assistance here from an increasingly polarized and screamy media, as you probably know from reading some of your friends’ Facebook walls.)
I think President Donald Trump’s grand and unrealistic promises, combined with his unpopular legislative agenda that would break those promises, are likely to only further increase the level of public disaffection over time, and not just among his opponents.
And I think Trump’s insistence on viewing every initiative as a zero-sum “deal” with a winner and a loser is exacerbating the existing tendency of voters on both sides to assume every policy decision has to end with somebody getting screwed – and to fear that it will be them.
Rebuilding trust will help us all breathe easier
I think the best way to turn down the temperature about Washington is for politicians to do their jobs well: Listen to your constituents. Say your opponents’ ideas are exactly as bad as you think they are, but no worse. Pass laws that are popular.
Ensure the federal government is taking the necessary steps to prevent unforeseen disasters similar to the ones that wrecked institutional credibility over the last two decades, like 9/11 and the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina and the financial crash.
Take extra steps to demonstrate your lack of conflicts of interest, since that’s extra important at a time when the public takes such a dim view of politicians’ integrity and effectiveness.
Eschew no-choice politics; it makes people angry and cynical.
Try to find some policy areas that aren’t zero-sum, where Republicans and Democrats can make a show of working together, even if it’s mostly to demonstrate that mommy and daddy don’t fight all the time.
We all made a lot of jokes about last week’s “infrastructure week,” but aside from the economic effects, I think it would be good for the national psyche right now if Republicans and Democrats were seeing to it that some big, concrete things were getting built that they could cut ribbons on together.
It is not impossible to convince most people that the system is mostly working. Many governors from both political parties are popular right now.
And despite everything that is wrong in America, a lot is going right.