Though a Millennial, I’m old enough to remember an era when those town hall question-and-answer events intended to connect an elected official with their constituents were mostly orderly, civil, and informative. The first town hall I attended with former Senator Dr. Tom Coburn was so civil that the he took questions from the audience by asking us to raise our hands. No one talked over one another, jeers and cheers erupted but quickly faded so that everyone could hear what was being said, and the questions came directly from the audience in real-time instead of carefully pre-screened on index cards read by a moderator.
Best of all, without the backdrop of an audience constantly looking for something to boo and hiss at or an occasion to rise to their feet in thunderous applause, the elected official provided actual information instead of platitudes and red-meat catch phrases. People were there to learn, not to express passionate and thoughtless emotions. People felt heard by simply stating their opinion using a tone and volume appropriate for the size of the room, not by drowning out the naysayers in a chaotic mesh of angry noise.
Sadly, those days of civil political discourse in large groups are a distant memory. Last week I attended a town hall with my Congressman, Jim Bridenstine. It was unlike any town hall meeting I’d ever been to in terms of jeers, cheers, and near-constant disruptions. I am told Representative Markwayne Mullin, from the congressional district next door, canceled his town hall meeting scheduled for the following day, citing security concerns.
This problem of a corporate lack of decency is hardly confined to Oklahoma. Earlier this week news that United Airlines had forcibly removed a passenger from their plane went viral in one of the worst negative PR debacles in recent memory. Writing for National Review, David French details the chain of events that led to the violent removal and then concludes:
“And so here we are, a series of events that seems to compress our loss of manners, kindness, and honesty into a single viral story. Imagine if just one—just one—of the individuals in this entire chain of affairs had stopped obsessing over their rights and power and instead had asked themselves, ‘If I was in their shoes, how would I like to be treated?’ Only Twitter thrives in a culture of pettiness, unreason, and malice. Our nation surely does not.”
Must it be this way? Is anyone made better off by this? Do we actually prefer to communicate like this to one another? Could we not stop, if only for a moment, and admit that closed-minded, hateful speech is not married to any one political party or worldview but that we’re all capable of this sort of base behavior? And that we’re both capable of and responsible for behaving otherwise? Imagine what might happen if one “side” of the political divide simply chose to behave like grown-ups.
It would be wrong to say that politics in this country have never been this divisive. We have only to look to the Civil War in reminding ourselves that things could be much worse. Yet the Civil War didn’t fester overnight. It took years of bitterness between divided factions and people who’d convinced themselves nothing could be gained by open debate and instead were incited to use force before things eventually spilled over to bloodshed. Political divisiveness waxes and wanes throughout our history.
And yet, it would be equally wrong to conclude that we are immune from further internal destruction. Is there any doubt that divisiveness has grown worse over the past couple of decades? I still recall the allegations of Bush stealing the election from Al Gore in 2000. The Left smeared him with the epithet Commander and Thief. After eight years of the Left’s unhinged aggression towards the Bush administration, the Right was all too happy to return the favor. Not satisfied with objecting to his policies only, Obama was chastised by some for being anti-American, secretly Communist or Muslim, hellbent on destroying the country, a foreign-born citizen with no legitimate claim to the presidency. I needn’t elaborate on the visceral loathing of our current president—deserved or not—as it’s evident daily.
And what is the likely outcome of perpetuating these narratives? What is the appropriate response to a president who stole the election, or wants to destroy the country, or is in bed with the Russians? At what point do the masses abandon even the pretense of a civil debate and begin to believe that force and violence are the only recourse left?
Thinking back, I suspect the disruptions at the Bridenstine town hall were inevitable. I had attended multiple Republican gatherings in the months leading up to the town hall where Bridenstine staffers addressed the audience and invited them to the upcoming event. In each of these meetings it was revealed that rumors had been circulating that liberal and progressive groups were hard at work recruiting people to come to the town hall to angrily voice their dissention. Just in case the point was lost, the staffers then asked that “our side” make the effort to attend to “show their support” for the Congressman.
Both “sides" were recruiting people to attend a meeting for the express purpose of showing which side has the most support. The results were similar to a grade school pep rally in which opposing sides are told to shout, “We’ve got spirit, yes we do! We’ve got spirit; how about you!” It’s quaint and harmless enough when it involves children in randomly assigned groups. When it involves adults supposedly engaged in a political discussion it’s alarming and pathetic.
In spite of hours of continuous noise, Congressman Bridenstine handled the disrupters like a champ. He didn’t let them rattle him and occasionally laughed at their antics. At one point he made mention of the Boy Scouts in the room who’d participated in the opening ceremony and said something to the effect that they should take note of the fact that they were witnessing something they could be proud of: Americans voicing their opinion without fear.
That’s true in one sense and false in another. If Bridenstine meant only that it was worth celebrating that we live in a country where this sort of behavior won’t get you locked away then—yes—thank God for that. If, however, he was suggesting there was something praiseworthy of what the grown-ups were doing, or that this is an appropriate way to engage in political discourse, I strongly disagree. We don’t encourage children to behave like adults by offering them adults behaving like children as role models. And celebrating our liberty to voice dissent does not require that we celebrate those who chose to use their liberty to behave as fools. We can express gratitude for a country that protects our freedom of speech and still compel our fellow countrymen to behave as the sort of people worthy of free speech.
Perhaps you’d think me a bit reactionary or overly straight-laced. Haven’t politics always been fraught with disorder and name-calling? But the freedom to enjoy a peaceful political assembly should not soon be taken for granted. Civilization isn’t something we pass from one generation to the next through our bloodstream. Civilization is a conscious decision that must be made by each successive generation to behave with civility. The only thing separating civilization from barbarism is our choice to reign in the appetite. What will you choose?