The horrific shooting targeting GOP lawmakers at an Alexandria baseball field last week was an alarming wake-up call: Public officials may be increasingly facing potentially deadly threats of violence. Although hostile messages, emails and social-media posts are nothing new for many lawmakers, the shooting heightened awareness that verbal threats can rapidly and unpredictably turn into physical ones.
In Washington, legislators from both parties are justifiably jittery. “Everyone’s getting a bunch of death threats right now,” Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) said last week. His Republican colleague Rep. Martha McSally, who now holds the Arizona congressional seat vacated by Democrat Gabrielle Giffords after she was seriously injured in a 2011 assassination attempt, has received death threats over her support of President Trump.
Candidates for office are also targets. As James Hohmann reports, both candidates in tomorrow’s special election in Georgia, Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff, are now accompanied by bodyguards after both experienced an intensification of violent threats in recent weeks. The ugliness is affecting local races, too. In Binghamton, N.Y., Michael Treiman, the Democratic candidate for mayor, withdrew from the race after receiving verbal threats and having a soda can thrown at him and his young children while the assailant yelled “liberal scumbag.”
Sadly, these types of threats do not appear to be abating anytime soon. Which raises an urgent question: What can be done about them?
Some lawmakers, such as Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), have announced plans to carry their own guns — which is not exactly a prescription for tamping down possible violence. Others, such as McSally, have called for more civil political rhetoric — a noble goal, but one that will require a more concerted and committed effort than many leaders, including the president, seem willing to pursue.
Still others, however, have proposed another possible solution: reducing town halls where they face constituents who are sometimes angry about legislative and policy priorities. Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.), who called for scaling back town halls, described them as “just targets for people to try to incite other people and it’s not good.” Other lawmakers have hinted that they, too, would balk at public appearances. All this suggests that we may see a trend develop in which lawmakers retreat from their constituents.
But withdrawing from the public and reducing interaction with voters is the last solution that lawmakers should be considering right now.
First, these vital forums, which are often the only opportunity for voters to engage in personal interactions with their elected representatives, are essential to our democracy. While advances in technology have made communication, both to and from one’s elected representative, faster and easier, nothing makes a constituent’s views clear like an in-person encounter. Those encounters are often the only chance constituents may have to ask their representative tough questions about their positions on issues, and to try to hold lawmakers accountable for how those positions effect their lives.
Just witness the town halls we’ve seen as the Republican leadership crafts legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act. In the face of Republican efforts to eliminate the health insurance of millions of Americans, town halls have produced emotionally jarring moments with voters recounting wrenching stories of the catastrophic impact of loved ones’ illnesses.
What’s more, shirking these town halls risks making the problem worse. Some political scientists and analysts believe political violence can escalate in democracies when voters show declining confidence in democratic institutions, as several experts recently told Vox. Thus, if lawmakers withdraw from the public, that could end up further eroding constituents’ confidence in our democracy and democratic institutions — worsening one of the very problems that may be contributing to a sense of helplessness in the first place.
It’s possible to even imagine a cycle of deterioration, in which that diminishing confidence, combined with escalating threats of violence, only makes the public even more fearful about the prospects for our democracy’s continued functioning and more uncertain about public officials’ abilities to fulfill their duties as lawmakers.
It’s true that many lawmakers, particularly Republicans, have faced angry constituents since Trump took office, and it is understandable that many are afraid. But these lawmakers must be able to distinguish between, for example, a mother terrified her sick child will lose her health insurance and someone who is a physical threat to the safety of others. By conflating a voter’s anger and frustration over health-care policy with a threat to safety, lawmakers are sending a corrosive signal to their constituents — one that will likely only make those constituents even more disheartened about the their representatives’ lack of responsiveness. Lawmakers need to acknowledge and listen to that voter frustration, not demonize it by equating it with violence.
Lawmakers certainly shouldn’t be heedless about their own safety or that of their staffs. But rather than causing them to turn away from their constituents, that fear should help them understand that voters, too, are afraid. Ordinary Americans have been victims of violence in schools, movie theaters, workplaces, places of worship and their homes. Voters understand lawmakers’ fear, and want that fear to be abated — for everyone. Running away from meeting with those voters won’t reduce threats from violent people. It will only heighten fears that lawmakers have no solutions but to cower.
By avoiding town halls, lawmakers would signal that there is no possible solution to violent threats other than hiding from the ordinary functions of life in a democracy. But nothing could be more destructive to democracy than the toxic combination of rising mutual fear accompanied by the shutting down of open and public debate.