What Kind of Democracy Are We When Politicians Have to Fear Violence?

Now that the dust has settled on the House speakership fight, both Washington and the media have been eager to move on to other issues: the Israel-Hamas war, the Trump trials, the recent elections, and, on Capitol Hill, a potential government shutdown and various funding bills. These are all important, but we shouldn’t let the ugly side of American politics that surfaced during the speakership fight be forgotten. It may not be front and center right now, but its shadow looms over everything.

I’m talking, of course, about the threats of violence against House members—Republicans—who didn’t fall in line behind Jim Jordan, one of the candidates. Ken Buck, a Colorado Republican, said he had received at least four death threats. Nebraska Republican Ken Bacon told reporters he’d gotten text messages and phone calls that so worried his wife she slept with a loaded gun near her bedside. Iowa’s Mariannette Miller-Meeks reported “credible death threats and a barrage of threatening calls.” A Georgia Republican told his colleagues that threats had led him to ask a sheriff back home to dispatch a deputy to his daughter’s school and to station an officer by his home.

Thankfully, no actual violence occurred. But these recent threats were only the latest example of a political environment that has become a true threat to our strength as a country. I’m not just talking about threats against election workers, the constant threats against high-profile legislators, or the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol—though that was (so far) the low point in our recent history. If you read McKay Coppins’ September article in The Atlantic or his new book on Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, on which that article was based, Romney made plain what’s been happening. “One Republican congressman confided to Romney that he wanted to vote for Trump’s second impeachment, but chose not to out of fear for his family’s safety,” Coppins wrote. The same calculations took place among GOP senators during the Senate trial.

Coppins then poses a haunting question. “How long can a democracy last,” he asks, “when its elected leaders live in fear of physical violence from their constituents?”

That nicely sums things up. Especially because a recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution found that about 23 percent of respondents agreed that “because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” That’s an alarmingly high number of people who believe that preserving the essence of the United States means harming or killing others.

When, of course, it’s just the opposite. Our entire system is built on the idea that, however passionate political disagreement might become, we give the people we elect to public office the ability to sort things out. In a society as diverse as ours, by pretty much every conceivable measure, it’s the only way to make progress on addressing our needs and resolving our challenges.

This is why values like compromise and negotiation are so crucial: Because state legislators and members of Congress are bound to disagree—after all, they represent people with different backgrounds and beliefs—they have to find some form of common ground in order to move forward. This shared understanding of what we’re about as a country has been fundamental to our progress.

Threats of violence, on the other hand, undermine this. They come from people for whom the normal give and take of the political or legislative process is unbearable, because it might produce an outcome they don’t like. In essence, they don’t share most Americans’ belief that we’re all in this together. And, as Romney’s revelations to Coppins make clear, they distort legislative outcomes by making our elected representatives violate their own beliefs out of fear.

We see that kind of behavior in autocracies. It is not what America is or ever should be about.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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