Fitch is president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation.
At a time when many Americans lament that members of Congress representing the two major parties don't have anything in common, there is one very sad metric they share: Both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill are on the receiving end of a massive increase in hostile messages and death threats.
The level of vitriol flowing through the internet and phone lines to Congress is greater than at any other time in American history. Capitol Police Inspector General Michael Bolton testified at a congressional hearing recently that the number of death threats doubled in 2021 compared to last year.
It is impossible to diminish the emotional and psychological scar this leaves with members of Congress and their families, but there is another group deeply affected that often goes unnoticed — congressional staff. Members of Congress don't answer their own phones or open emails sent to their offices — thousands of congressional staff are on the front lines of our democracy and getting the brunt of angry, racist, hurtful and dangerous speech that is polluting our nation. In a snap poll of congressional staff a few weeks ago the Congressional Management Foundation asked whether staff had recently experienced direct insults or threatening messages or communications. More than three-quarters said they had.
Perhaps one can merely cast aside concerns for staffers' welfare with a simple, "Well, that's what they signed up for when they were hired." No, not exactly. Congressional staff score amazingly high in any assessment of their level of job engagement and dedication to their profession. Staffers in Congress are not alone in their passion to help despite stressful and demanding conditions. First responders, nurses, Navy SEALS and others also make sacrifices resulting from their commitment to serve. The difference between them and congressional staff is this: most Americans who make sacrifices for others are lauded for those sacrifices, whereas congressional staff are ridiculed, belittled and literally spat upon in the public square. There comes a point where the abuse overwhelms the passion, the negativity erases all meaning of why they jumped on this crazy roller coaster called Congress to begin with.
Adding to the horror and pain is that many staffers are still working from home, and sharing phone answering duties with office colleagues. Without warning, a staffer picks up her phone to hear these chilling words: "We're coming for the congresswoman, her family, you, your family ... and we know where you live!" Before the staffer can hang up, the caller has cursed at her several times. This episode has played out countless times in the congressional community since the siege on January 6. Just think about that scene in an American home — one minute a staffer is fielding a death threat, the next moment her 6-year-old appears at her home office door asking for a peanut butter sandwich.
Leaders in Congress don't have to accept this abuse without responding. Experts in psychology and security say managers should demonstrate empathy and understanding of what staff are going through, encourage self-care and change policies to reduce the possibility that staff will be receiving "live" death threats by phone. "Leaders have to make it safe in the office for staff to express feelings and for staff to take care of themselves," said Brian Baird, a former member of Congress and clinical psychologist who has been conducting staff training sessions with CMF during the pandemic. "Building and modeling a culture of support is part of what can come out of this pandemic," he said. "We need to work on our team support and not let people fend for themselves."
CMF also strongly recommends that congressional offices temporarily stop taking live calls and move all incoming calls to voicemail. We know that some members will balk at this — however, CMF has worked with offices thathave moved to this policy and have seen no constituent push back. People are just fine getting a call back in two to four hours. These offices also report that staff are relieved from the fear of the next call. Managers: This means such a policy would result in GREATER job engagement by staff, improved morale and likely more staff retention.
For too long staff in Congress have been viewed as expendable and easily replaced. This not only has a tangible negative impact on the institution of Congress, it exacts a terrible toll on these amazing public servants. A recent news story examined the impact of the Jan. 6 insurrection and the aftermath of that attack on the mental and physical well-being of congressional staff. One staffer said: "Staff in general have been feeling like we're invisible, like nobody is looking out for us." Staff are the lifeblood of this institution, and the culture needs to change to treat them accordingly. Part of that culture of change should be to acknowledge the distressing and negative effects that this pandemic and the events of Jan. 6 are having on congressional staff, and take tangible steps to protect employees from these unbearable attacks to their mental well-being.
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VanDusky-Allen is an assistant professor of political science at Boise State University. Shvetsova is a professor of political science and economics at Binghamton University, State University of New York.
Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, a partisan divide has existed over the appropriate government response to the public health crisis. Democrats have been more likely to favor stricter policies such as prolonged economic shutdowns, limits on gathering in groups and mask mandates. Republicans overall have favored less stringent policies.
As political scientists and public health scholars, we've been studying political responses to the pandemic and their impacts. In research published in the summer of 2020, we found that "sub-governments," which in the U.S. means state governments, tended to have a bigger impact on the direction of pandemic policies than the federal government. Now, as data on last year's case and death rates emerge, we're looking at whether the political party in the governor's office became a good predictor of public health outcomes as Covid-19 moved across the country.
Looking at states' Covid-19 case and death rates, researchers are finding the more stringent policies typical of Democratic governors led to lower rates of infections and deaths, compared to the pandemic responses of the average Republican governor. In preparation for future pandemics, it may be worth considering how to address the impact that a state government's partisan leanings can have on the scope and severity of a public health crisis.
Comparing responses by Democratic and Republican governors
To compare and chart our state-by-state COVID-19 policy stringency data, we've developed our "Protective Policy Index." To calculate this index, we took into account the types of policies state governments adopted over the course of the pandemic, such as school closings, lockdowns and mandatory mask mandates. We combined the adopted measures for each state over time to calculate the index. Higher values of the index indicate states adopted more stringent measures.
When we charted the policy responses of Democratic and Republican governors between May 1 and July 31, 2020, they revealed that heading into May, states led by Democrats generally took more stringent measures than those led by Republicans. Over the next eight weeks or so, as Democratic-led states began to slowly reopen, they continued to maintain more stringent measures on average than Republican-led states. By July, Democratic governors began to roll back their reopenings amid some signs of a new pandemic wave, while Republican-led states largely maintained the same level of stringency.
With that information established, we could begin to explore whether there was a relationship between COVID-19 policy stringency in different states, and their rates of pandemic cases and deaths.
According to a study released in March, both case and death rates were higher on average in states led by Republican governors during the second half of 2020. The first map represents rates of Cocis-19 cases between June 1 and July 31, 2020 as reported by the CDC. The second map represents CDC estimates of excess mortality rates – the number of deaths above the average norm – between June 1 and August 31, 2020. The taller spikes indicate higher case and death rates.
Next, to study the relationship between the stringency of a state's pandemic responses and its rates of Covid-19 cases and deaths, we mapped each state's rating on the Protective Policy Index to the same CDC data. The results show that more stringent policies were generally associated with fewer cases and deaths.
All of these findings, in conjunction with those of our own research, suggest that amid the current deep divide in U.S. politics, it's possible to forecast public health outcomes based on whether a state is led by a Republican or a Democrat. For large chunks of time in 2020, states led by Republicans overall had higher average case and death rates from Covid-19, in part due to their state governments adopting less stringent policies to quell the virus. It is important to note, however, that not all states fit perfectly into this pattern. For example, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, adopted relatively stricter measures and this likely led to better health outcomes.
America's polarized health care politics
The differences we discovered between red and blue states in our analysis did not surprise our team. After all, a partisan divide over health care in the U.S. existed before Covid-19. During President Bill Clinton's administration in the 1990s, there was a clear and growing partisan divide over health care reform. During President Barack Obama's administration, Democrats supported the Affordable Care Act and the federal government's response to the H1N1 virus, while nearly all Republicans opposed both measures.
We already know that partisan divisions over health care in the U.S. can worsen public health. For example, despite the evidence that the ACA has had a positive effect on individual health care outcomes, Republicans have consistently fought against it. Republican-led states that chose not to adopt Medicaid expansion have not experienced all the positive benefits of the Affordable Care Act.
For example, states such as Texas, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi that have not expanded Medicaid have the largest relative percentage of uninsured residents in the country. In some Republican-led states that did opt for Medicaid expansion, it was adopted with new restrictions. This has ultimately led to worse outcomes.
These long-established partisan divisions have also influenced Americans' polarized views of the government's proper role in addressing the pandemic. This divide grew so wide during 2020 that at some points it was as if people were living in alternate realities based on their partisan leanings. At times an American's political affiliation indicated whether or not they would acknowledge even that a pandemic was really happening.
Where we go from here
Now that mass vaccination against Covid-19 is underway across the country, Americans have hope that life will soon get "back to normal." But until enough people are vaccinated to halt the spread of the virus, public health officials are warning that we are not quite there yet. They are encouraging states to maintain some restrictions that slow the spread of the virus, especially considering that there are more contagious variants spreading across the country.
Overwhelming evidence suggests that differences between Republican and Democratic officials on health policy have had life-or-death consequences during the pandemic. But recent history suggests that in the next public health crisis, governments across the U.S. may once again focus more on politics than on policies grounded in the best available science. Experience also suggests that even when this leads to bad health outcomes, Americans aren't likely to rethink the partisan divide over health care.
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I have always been self-reflective. It was my coping mechanism during bouts of family drama, when I would escape to my room and think. In the days before screens took all our attention, I read a lot and journaled a little. With therapy as a young adult and coach training for a midlife career change, I got to know myself well. When I looked at where I wanted to contribute, I landed in politics — with a starry-eyed dream that we could collectively advance our nation via coaching everyone.
My journey of self-discovery, improvement and actualization brings joy to me and many benefits as I work in the rough and tumble of politics. A few are:
- Knowing I am inherently a good person.
- Trusting myself.
- Carrying a sense of peace within myself, sharing it with others.
- Ability to be vulnerable and overcoming the fear of being hurt.
- Understanding the thoughts that are truly mine, compared to thoughts others would like me to believe (family, culture, media, etc.).
- Fearlessness in facing my own beliefs about others and the world at large.
- Befriending my emotions as tools to understand myself better.
I could go on and on. Yes, I like myself, just as I am.
When I was working as a coach, I had a particularly challenging client. Week after week, she failed to keep her agreements to self-reflect. So I asked her why she was avoiding looking inside herself.
"I don't find myself that interesting," was her response.
At that moment, I realized coaching wouldn't work for her. She wanted the world around her to change to her preferences. She wasn't committed to adapting or accepting the world as it was; to examine what was inside herself that caused her resentment. We parted ways soon after.
I suspect the majority of us (Americans) would like our life circumstances to magically adapt to accommodate our preferences. In this current age of the attention economy, we've been catered to by "the customer is always right" thinking perpetuated by advertisers, entertainment platforms and social media to believe it IS possible to create our world just the way we like it.
IRL (in real life) of course, that's not how people, communities or the world works. We are not customers of democracy or consumers of politics. We must be participants.
Good relational skills help us navigate, negotiate and motivate ourselves to meet our needs with others in our day-to-day lives. How often do we self-reflect about our own navigation (what is our purpose?), negotiation (what are deal-breakers?) or motivation (what are we willing to do?)? Our families, communities and nation would be stronger if we stopped to take a look.
Which brings us to Maslow's hierarchy of needs. There is a reason that self-actualization is the pinnacle in the hierarchy. When people are focused on meeting their physical and emotional needs, stopping for self-actualization or personal growth is "one more thing" that requires time and energy. If there is not enough time or energy, people never quite get to their personal growth. It's not necessary for survival. I postulate that self-fulfillment (a benefit of personal growth) is necessary for sustained happiness. And further, that for the American experiment to succeed, collective personal growth is necessary.
When I first contemplated jumping into politics, I was at a crossroads in my life. I had left the soul-killing (for me) work of advertising and marketing. I was a full-time, self-employed executive life coach. My physical and emotional needs were met. But I was still restless and dissatisfied. That is the moment when transformative self-actualization began for me.
"Aren't you ever content?" was the complaint lodged by my then-husband.
He was right — and wrong. Right that I'm rarely content. I love the motivation of being dissatisfied with the status quo and striving for the next thing. I love the rush of endorphins as I co-create something new and innovative with friends and colleagues. I love the journey to deeper understanding of myself, others and our nation. If I'm not moving towards a better future, I'm not happy. But he was wrong that being content was a destination at which to arrive and live out our days.
Pulling back to the perspective of the nation — are we at a moment where we are struggling to survive? Or could our discontent be a sign that we are beginning a self-actualization process, collectively as Americans? I would say that is exactly what is happening.
Culturally, we paused after the turbulent '60s and '70s. We needed a break to embody and recover from seemingly rapid change. Our focus shifted from the continued expansion and security of civil rights to more individual needs. Our discontent was pushed aside for a while. And now we are dissatisfied again because it is time for us to move on, to think about our collective needs. This is our journey to manifest our potential government of the people, by the people, for the people.
Contentment for a moment in time is a great place to rest. But it's the JOURNEY that keeps us alive. That exploration of who we are as a people. How much we can achieve or co-create to make our lives, our communities and our nation a better place to live. And a healthier planet to live upon.
For my former client who didn't find herself interesting and the Americans who think it's "those people" who are to blame for our current situation, I would advise to pause for self-reflection anyway. If you are experiencing feelings of hatred, contempt or disgust, how are those emotions helping our nation? If you feel superior to others who "don't get it," how is your superiority helping our nation?
In our republic, our democratic values are made up of our collective selves. As it is with each of us individually, it is the same with democracy. Democracy is not a destination but a journey to evolve and improve. This is both an individual and community responsibility and only by taking this path together will we heal the wounds that divide us.
At this moment in our nation's history, we have a lot to lose. And a lot to gain if we can get it right.
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Gardner is the CEO of ReflectUS, a national coalition of nine leading women's representation movement organizations working to accelerate gender parity. Terrell is executive director and founder of RepresentWomen, a member of ReflectUS.
The United States has a crisis of representation in government. Women are 51 percent of the population; yet only hold 27 percent of seats in the House of Representatives. Over the last decades, a myriad of training programs, including leadership development solutions, have been created specifically to get more women elected. Even with these increased resources to support women running for office, at our current rate we won't reach gender parity in political leadership in our lifetimes.
In 2000, the United States ranked 46th for women's representation in government at the national level; now we rank 67th, alongside Mali, Kazakhstan, Bulgaria, and Afghanistan. And the U.S. ranks well behind most well-established democracies in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
In other words, 66 countries have outpaced the United States in women's representation – not because their women are more qualified or ambitious, but because they have implemented electoral systems and policies to ensure more level playing fields and greater opportunity in the electoral process. Consider New Zealand, a country often lauded for increasing women in leadership since adapting its electoral system from the "first past the post" model to the more modern mixed-member proportional system.
Similarly, in the nation of Georgia, political parties are incentivized to recruit more women and receive state funding for doing so, while in Ireland political parties lose funding for failing to recruit enough women to represent their party. The evidence is clear – if our nation wants to accelerate greater gender representation and demonstrate that we truly value women's political leadership, we need both leadership development programs and changes to our political and electoral systems. The history of women's representation best demonstrates this need.
In 1992, a record number of women ran for and were elected to Congress – in fact, more women won that year than in any previous decade. The year became known as the Year of the Woman and set in motion other political gains. During this same period, our government failed to change policies and voting systems to make it more equitable for women to run. For instance, it was only in 2018 that women running for federal office were allowed to use campaign funds to cover childcare expenses. This important policy still isn't in place in most states. In the year 2021, 29 years after the Year of the Woman, it is hard to imagine that women are still fighting these same battles.
Many have touched on the history made with Joe Biden's selection of Kamala Harris as his vice presidential running mate. One hundred years after the 19th Amendment granted many women the right to vote, Harris is the first woman of color and the fourth woman overall to be on a major-party ticket for a presidential election. While no woman has served as the U.S. President, 13 countries around the world have women heads of state. Along with becoming one of a small handful of women to be featured on the ballot during a presidential election, Harris' nomination illustrates the unique power executive leaders have to accelerate gender equality and parity by appointing women as running mates and to key leadership positions. Local, state and national appointed positions often perform a great deal of government work – writing policies, making decisions, presenting ideas and so forth. More women in these roles increases women's influence in the policymaking process.
While other countries have adopted innovative strategies to improve women's representation, lawmakers in the U.S. have done little to address the constraints of our system. Additionally, more than 100 countries have implemented targeted recruitment practices to increase the number of women who run in the first place. In the U.S., women's moderate successes in spite of these institutional barriers remain uneven across ideology, age, geography class and race.
The ReflectUS Coalition's work on systemic change runs the gamut: We believe that every person and institution plays an important role in this work. Political parties must commit to recruiting women to run for office and commit to gender equality standards. Political donors can put their resources behind women early on in primaries and later in general elections to ensure women have the funding they need – funding that attracts other donors to contribute. Individuals can donate, volunteer and vote for women who are running for office. Those in charge of appointments to boards and commissions must commit to gender-balanced appointments. There are also policy approaches that would greatly accelerate women's political leadership such as modernizing legislative workplace norms with onsite childcare, paid leave and proxy voting so women can serve effectively and rise to leadership positions.
Without women, we are missing a vital opportunity to address real concerns for more than half the population in the United States. Gender equality should not be reliant on the success of one party over another; for equality to be achieved and sustained it must happen across the ideological, racial, economical, and geographical spectrum. As we move beyond the suffrage centennial and celebrate the women leaders who made the 19th Amendment possible, we must harness the energy for change and the hunger for women's representation on the ticket and in the Cabinet. And we must commit to systemic changes that will last longer than a presidency.
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