Politics matter. Political disagreements matter. But there is little doubt that the tone of our political discourse in this country has become so toxic that, combined with the easy availability of weapons capable of doing enormous harm, our political disputes can too easily spill over into real violence.
And the moment that the rhetoric crosses into violence, after the thoughts are prayers are expressed, both sides shift into blame that ratchets up the tension. When I woke to the news from Alexandria today, my first thought was about the number of former students and people I know who work in Congress and my hope they were all safe. My second was to hope that the shooter was not connected to any group of people who have been increasingly marginalized by the Trump Administration. And then I was just filled with sorrow, thinking about a climate where violence like this has become so normalized that we’re hardly even shocked to learn about another mass shooting.
And then the opprobrium and bile from the worst of the conservative partisans started to roll in. Claiming that President Obama and Hillary Clinton were somehow responsible for the shooting was the opening, followed by endlessly retweeted suggestions that “liberal celebrities and the MSM” caused the shooter to act.
Just as happens in every one of these preventable tragedies, there was a brief moment of people sharing empathy and fear like human beings before a giant leap into the worst of our impulses took over.
And that’s where I was when a friend shared an exchange between former Montana Congressman Rick Hill and former Montana legislator Ed Butcher on Facebook. I certainly don’t agree with Hill on many issues, but I was impressed by his effort to rein in the ill-informed bile and rage that Butcher responded with. I’ve included a passage from their conversation here.
While someone could certainly critique some of the rhetoric from the left (and I’d welcome their insight), the exchange between Hill and Butcher demonstrates the two forces driving the Republican Party today. While Hill critiques the empty rhetoric and hyperbole that dominates the toxic political discourse in the U.S. today, Butcher is just screaming about Saul Alinsky (whose name he can’t even spell) and imaginary forces of 30,000 paid rioters coming after President Trump.
Hill is speaking to a set of values at the heart of the American experiment: the beliefs that debate and discourse should drive our policy decisions and that demagoguery is the greatest threat to republican government.
Unfortunately, the Butcher wing of the Republican Party seems to be more powerful and less-informed every day. It’s not just the President; it’s seen in online comments defending the indefensible, politicians assaulting reporters, and a culture where 42% of Trump supporters believe violence against the press is justifiable.
Representative Hill and I are unlikely to see eye to eye on many issues, but I so appreciate his willingness to engage with the people in his party who aren’t interested in reason or actual debate. And I suspect he and I would agree that, while political debates should be spirited and passionate, it’s time for everyone to stop the calls for and endorsement of violence against political leaders.
I’m increasingly worried about the dark road we seem to be headed down in American politics, but appreciate those on both sides of the aisle who are willing to try to keep the path lit by reasonable debate.
We have to start to do better and perhaps the start is offering appreciation for those with whom we disagree.