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The United States of America faces enormous challenges it must address in coming years. The climate emergency. The persistence of racial inequities. The extreme concentration of wealth among 1 percent of its residents. The soaring cost of housing. The rise in homelessness. A flawed, costly health-care system. Trust in institutions. The need to put this pandemic behind and prepare for the next one. The staggering growth in national debt that has the potential to send the economy off the cliff.
In a nation where control of the federal government has shifted back and forth between complete Democratic control, split authority and complete GOP control for decades, these problems aren’t going to be fixed without bipartisan coalitions.
But such coalitions can only exist when lawmakers and their constituents value civility. Increasingly, many Americans don’t seem to even acknowledge this value, much less practice it.
On Nov. 2, at a San Diego County Board of Supervisors meeting, a critic of vaccine mandates said he hoped three supervisors would die or kill themselves, insulted the physical appearance of one of them, then used a racial slur against Dr. Wilma Wooten, director of the county public health department, who is Black. Some of the audience cheered or laughed at these remarks. This is stomach-turning.
A more high-profile incident involving elected officials was no less troubling for its lack of civility and embrace of violence. On Nov. 7, Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Arizona, posted a photoshopped anime video to his Twitter and Instagram accounts that showed him killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, and attacking President Joe Biden.
Gosar and his staff suggested the strong objections this triggered from many Democrats were exaggerated for partisan reasons. The House member put out a statement that said he doesn’t “espouse violence or harm towards any member of Congress or Mr. Biden.” But he refused to apologize.
This is appalling. As four House Democrats noted, “In any other job in America, if a co-worker made a video killing another co-worker, that person would be fired.” Meanwhile, 13 House Republicans who broke ranks with their party to approve a bipartisan infrastructure bill are getting death threats, being tagged traitors and told to “rot in hell.”
Because the targets in these incidents are Democrats or Republicans former President Donald Trump labeled RINOs — in name only — there will be an inclination to blame this all on Trump’s terrible example. And perhaps the majority of the blame should go to Trump and his rabid supporters.
But there is plenty of blame to go around.
Those indignant over recent “F- – – Joe Biden” chants had no problems with years of “F- – – Trump” chants when he was president. Nor did many take issue when Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles, called for Democrats to “absolutely harass” Trump administration officials when they were in public in 2018. Nor was there push back that same year when Hillary Clinton and former Attorney General Eric Holder declared they had given up on civility in politics.
Mutual loathing is the new norm. A September poll by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics found more than 80 percent of Biden and Trump voters agreed that elected officials of the other party “present a clear and present danger to American democracy.” It’s such views that are the threat to democracy. Until enough Americans figure this out, ugly dysfunction and rancor will increasingly define our society — and paralyze all levels of government.