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.

Rebecca