How to Go High?

Dear Joel,

Years ago, I was visiting the home of a politically conservative couple in rural Kansas. They were a generation older than me and very gracious hosts. We were on the patio, eating dinner, when the wife suddenly picked up a fly swatter and used it to smash a box elder that had landed on her chair. “Damn Democrat,” she muttered as she shook its guts into a nearby planter.

I’d never heard the term before (maybe you, a native Kansan, have), but apparently the term is used in the central states for these bugs, which appear around the time of the national political conventions.  (This may be the only time I get to use my limited knowledge of etymology and entomology in the same sentence!) But the glee with which my host smashed that bug, then swore at it, let me know that she very much enjoyed thinking about members of the opposing political party as detestable, destructive objects that she could kill.

Image result for boxelder bugs

Above, a box elder bug. What happens when we use metaphors that show contempt for people with differing political views? When are such metaphors funny or useful? When do they shape our feelings about actual people?

I tried not to give that moment too much credibility, but I replayed it many times in my mind since, especially since the 2016 primary season. Around that time, I began a side project following “Deplorable” Facebook pages, pro-Trump social media spaces that, in the words of one, are for anyone who has been accused of having an “-ism” (racism, sexism, nativism, etc.). The total disrespect that members of these boards have for others (including other members who sometimes ask them to stop with the most violently racist and sexist memes) seemed another version of smashing of the box elder bug.

And your comments earlier this week, about our race to the bottom, our movement from tribalization to demonization to the Russia scandal, reminded me of it again. You argued that both Democrats and Republicans get tribal and demonize each other. Consequently, we justify whatever means we can use because, after all, the “other guy” is going to do it too. Eventually, we’ll be left only with politicians willing to always do the worst. This isn’t leadership; it’s a fear-based strategy to get and keep power, which really only becomes about keeping others out of power. It’s a game of controlling the ball but never moving it forward, just as GOP leadership has done in these first 100+ days of the Trump administration.

I don’t think it’s too Capraesque to say that we can have leaders who do good well. We just have to want that more than we want the other things we are voting for, including racism. We have to say that playing fairly matters to us, that we won’t defend politicians who cheat, fearmonger, scapegoat, obfuscate, undermine democratic participation in our institutions, and obstruct justice. Why would we want leaders who do those things? (And, trust me on this one, there are plenty of people on Deplorable social media sites who see Trump’s lies, bigotry, and cheating as absolute positives. Their support for Trump as “God Emperor” is evidence, I think, of the need for civics education.)

Did voters get what they deserved in the 2016 election? Until the shadow of Russian interference in the election is gone, we won’t know. At minimum, though, it was clear in the primary line-up that we didn’t care enough about character to support candidates who were competent and had the character both to serve and to lead a divided nation forward toward a more perfect democracy.

Can we get there? Yes. You asked, though, how. How do we go high when they go low, whatever our party affiliation and whoever we see as the “they”?

I think we have to punish politicians who lack character by voting them out of office and calling them out when, during their tenure, they fail to live up to basic standards of civility and decency. That also means, though, that we need better options–which means more people of character stepping up to serve in elected roles, which means lowering the financial barriers to running. We can also improve civics education, making public service integral to civil life, so that the question “How do I serve?” is one everyone asks.



  1. Since I work at a university, I more often see the “Damn Republicans” side of things, but that doesn’t matter since your point is that demonizing the other is the problem regardless of who is doing the demonizing. Your conclusion about getting decent people to run and how to do that is a rough one. I often wonder why anyone runs for office when it just opens them up for such vitriol–from local to national politicians (I thin of Mitt Romney–a pragmatist at his core–who was demonized for putting his dog on his roof on a family vacation). I was just listening to two political scientists NPR today and they made the case that we need MORE career politicians, not fewer, and were opposed to term limits. Their rationale was that we need people who know how to govern, who know how to make deals (even backroom deals), and how to compromise. They also claimed that more of our state elected politicians should have more power and say in choosing national politicians–again on the premise that we need people who know how to work in gov’t. It was a fascinating discussion, and as one who has argued for term limits, a very surprising one.


    • Is it possible to be a decent human being and be a politician? It seems like that to have the stamina to withstand constant attacks, you have to have an ego that will get in the way in other areas of leadership. (So maybe you have to be a little narcissistic, and the trick is just managing that so that the public isn’t harmed by it too often.) Or maybe politics shapes people into selfish people. (The Atlantic just had an article on the neurological consequences of power.) Or maybe it’s both.

      But I hope it doesn’t HAVE to be that way. We could create a different political scene that lowers the temperature, refocuses on pragmatic solutions to real world problems, and doesn’t use politics as a way to sort people into valuable/worthless.

      I’m not a supporter of term limits, just for the reason that the NPR piece gave. Government is, at least in part, a technical endeavor, and we should want highly skilled people to do it. Long-term folks have incentive to compromise and also the ability to see long-term, slow projects through. (Not sure I buy any argument that would undermine direct election of representatives, but I get the point.)

      The Atlantic piece:


  2. Reminds me of a relation, raised in Louisiana, who told me he thought damn Yankee was one word during his younger years.

    I was disappointed in the nominees for both the major parties – and the parties that nominated them. I quit my party, decided “lesser of the two evils” wasn’t going to work for me, and voted third party.

    I’m not sure how to get better leaders other than to try to expand the pool of good people and let statistics kick in.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you are right on, Dave–we have to make politics a noble profession that good people want to participate in. I think there are a lot of ways to do that: civics education, automatic voter registration, easy access to the polls (like moving Veterans Day to election day?), etc.


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