The shooting in Alexandria, Va., that nearly killed Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) could have been a horrifying massacre. That it wasn’t was a miracle, a combination of good fortune and valiant heroism, and frankly, pure luck.
We have seen much too much carnage resulting from wanton gun violence in our country. All too often, the shooter is mentally unstable, as this one was. Yet not only was this shooter estranged from his family and society, he was also riled up by the hate and reckless language of our current political discourse.
This shooting should be a wakeup call for all of us concerned about today’s nasty political rhetoric.
But instead of tamping down the political rhetoric as House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have called for, there are those who are seeking to politicize this tragedy by compounding the blame and hate. For instance, there is now an argument being made that the “left” is prone to political violence, driven by criticism of President Donald Trump. And we all know that the “right” is often vilified in generalized terms whenever an attack against vulnerable groups, such as Muslims or LGBTQ individuals, takes place.
So who’s right? Are the attacks being perpetrated by individuals incited by dangerous political rhetoric, or are they just deranged individuals? The answer is probably somewhere in between. Prudence would therefore dictate that stopping the use of reckless language in our politics would play a role in reducing the chances for political violence.
When I ran for Congress this past election cycle, I knew that every time I stood up in front of a crowd or posted a message on social media, it would be viewed by thousands of people. I knew that my words would have an impact way beyond that of just an individual expressing an opinion. As someone seeking elected office, my words had the power to influence the thoughts, feelings and behaviors of voters.
There is a core responsibility that comes with that power. It is the responsibility to choose words carefully in order to ensure that one is bringing out the best in our fellow citizens, not the worst.
But our current political culture doesn’t seem to value this behavior, and we are at a low point, casting generalized blame against entire groups — ethnic, religious, political — for the behavior of individuals. The moment we are now living in therefore requires a different type of political discourse. We need leaders who are willing to speak truth to power, and to do so in a manner that engages rather than offends.
The sad tragedy of our current moment is that rather than being motivated by the possibility of what we can do together as a society, our politicians are articulating a vision of what we can’t do and what we’ll stop the other side from doing. The concept of “we” is rapidly disappearing.
The result is that Americans are more skeptical about what we can do collectively now than ever before.
Or are they?
In a collective act of peaceful defiance against the Alexandria shooting, a record number of Americans attended the congressional baseball game the next night, raising more than a million dollars — also a record. The fans sat mixed in purple, red and blue clothes to demonstrate that we are all one, united against violence, particularly when it’s justified in the name of politics.
I’m a Democrat and my wife is a Republican. While we have political differences, those are just some of our life’s views; they are not the entirety of who we are as people. And on that night, our daughters got to see their mommy and daddy both rooting for opposite teams while enjoying the night together. That type of acceptance is the kind of example we want our girls to see.
We need a political environment where debates are intense but where the love of country and respect for each other is sacrosanct.
When we complain about the devolution of our political culture and how the media and partisans are making our politics toxic, what we really have to be asking is: What role do we as individuals have in this outcome?
Apparently there’s quite a market for outrage and finger pointing. If there wasn’t, such rhetoric wouldn’t pervade the airwaves.
We can therefore either choose to reward finger pointing and outrage by voting for politicians who traffic in this toxicity, or we can reject them. We can choose to either boost the ratings of broadcasters who call for anger rather than education, or we can turn them off.
We all have a responsibility to reject the politics of hate and the media environment of inflammation. Sadly, and despite the Alexandria shooting, we are not doing enough.
Joel Rubin is a former Democratic primary congressional candidate and a former deputy assistant secretary of state. He is a member of the Town Council in Chevy Chase.
Mr. Rubin, well-written and well stated. Thank you. I would add one observation that the responsibility of a political leader, from a Town Council member to the President of the United States is tying speaking truth to power to refraining from both generating and exploiting the partisan or group or ethnic fervor that is driving the hate and polarization (and probably the manifestations of violence by unstable individuals). The exploitation is venal in its goal of advancing an individual’s political position and/or party/group standing. Besides each pretending to own “what the American people want,” neither progressives nor Tea Party Conservatives nor Libertarians really strive to establish the “we” that you promote. Keep up your good work, and I’m sure Chevy Chase is better for it.