The angry calls. The threats of violence. The predictions that loved ones will die if a health care bill passes Congress. The accusations that Members of Congress who vote for the bill are heartless and indifferent to the needs of their districts.
This is what it’s like to work in a congressional office in early 2017. It’s also an accurate description of what it was like for many congressional staffers in 2009 and 2010.
There is something about a health care debate that gets our national blood boiling. Something about a new president unlike any previous president that really gets under our collective skin. I see it now, as the District Director for Congresswoman Martha McSally, and I saw it then as the Communications Director for Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
Much has obviously changed over the past eight years. But it’s remarkable how the tone and tenor of our political interactions in 2017 sound a lot like 2010.
Then and now, our workdays in the congresswoman’s Tucson district office start by listening to profanity-laced voicemail messages. Then and now, a thoughtful, hardworking representative has somehow morphed into a monster. Then and now, this representative has become not just a political target for people with an opposing opinion, but a target of actual or threatened violence.
No one who worked for Congresswoman Giffords or any other member of Congress in the early days of the Obama administration could have ever imagined that the increasingly nasty political rhetoric we were witnessing would lead to violence. Then, of course, it did. Six people died, 13 were wounded and almost overnight we began paying close attention to the words we use in political discussions and the way we conduct ourselves to express political disagreements.
Within weeks of the shooting, numerous efforts were launched to stem what was seen as a rising tide of rancor in our public discourse. The National Institute for Civil Discourse was formed at the University Arizona to remind us that civility is “the glue that binds, repairs and strengthens” our nation. Democrat Ron Barber, Congresswoman Giffords’ district director and immediate successor, formed the Fund for Civility, Respect and Understanding. Republican Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup urged his colleagues at the U.S. Conference of Mayors to sign a “civility accord” that called on elected leaders to “avoid rhetoric intended to humiliate, de-legitimize, or question the patriotism of those whose opinions are different from ours.” Perhaps most poignantly, members of Congress dispensed with longstanding tradition at that year’s State of the Union and did not sit divided by party.
Fast forward to the early days of the Trump administration. The poisonous rhetoric is back and so are the threats of violence.
The FBI recently arrested a Tucson man who left Congresswoman McSally three threatening messages at our district office. “Be careful when you come back to Tucson,” he said in one. “Can’t wait to f**king pull the trigger.” In another, he told the congresswoman that her “days are numbered.”
There’s no denying that hyper-partisanship may be fueling this rage. So far this year – with over 17 months till the next election – nearly a half million dollars has already been spent by outside groups on television, radio and digital ads against Congresswoman McSally with the sole purpose of inflaming tensions in the district.
But when it comes to threats of violence and intimidation, it is possible to set aside the political labels. Our office started receiving calls and emails of support from across the country as soon as the arrest of the man who threatened McSally was announced. Political friends and foes alike expressed horror that the specter of political violence would rise up again in Southern Arizona. Giffords was among them.
Tucson distinguished itself after the shooting six years ago by the way we came together. We decided that a mass murder wouldn’t be the defining event in our lives. We consciously made an effort to take a stand against incivility and for understanding different political perspectives.
Greater civility, respect and understanding were good ideas six years ago. They still are. Now might be the perfect time to revisit them.
C.J. Karamargin has served as District Director for Congresswoman Martha McSally since she took office. He served as Communications Director for Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.