Weichlein is the CEO of FMC: The Former Members of Congress Association.
Rep. Rodney Davis joined a number of his fellow Republicans on June 14, 2017, for an early morning baseball practice on a field in Alexandria, a Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C. They were getting ready for an annual charity game that Republicans and Democrats have played for over 100 years, and the recurring time and place of their practice was not something anyone thought needed to be kept secret.
The first gunshots rang out about 30 minutes into practice, and if it had not been for two Capitol Police officers who happened to be at the field, there’s a good chance that Davis and most, if not all, of his colleagues would have been massacred that morning. The shooter, who does not deserve to have his name in print, had approached one of the members of Congress before practice began to make sure that those were indeed Republicans on the field that morning. In other words, had they been Democrats, he would have not pulled the trigger.
Davis has continued to represent Illinois in Congress despite that morning’s attempt on his life, and we are better off for it because he is a thoughtful legislator with integrity and commitment to making this country better. While performing this public service, he continues to routinely receive death threats, sometimes for being a Republican and other times for not being Republican enough. The other side of the political aisle is not exempt from the very real possibility of violence against them or their families. Sen. Mark Kelly, a Democrat from Arizona, said that threats are expected and come with the job. He should know, since his wife, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was shot in the head and nearly died in 2011 while holding a campaign event in her district.
The number of death threats against members of Congress actively investigated by police reached an astounding 3,939 in 2017. By 2020, that number had more than doubled. The next year it almost tripled to nearly 10,000. That means that on average a member of Congress receives a message that the police classify as “disconcerting or a direct threat” every three weeks. And when I say “a member of Congress receives,” what I should say instead is “the staff of a member of Congress receives” because the person picking up the phone and being harassed, screamed at with vicious and profanity-laden language, and told in no uncertain terms that the world would be better off without them, is usually an intern or the most junior staff member.
Public service comes in many different forms, and the health of our communities depends on citizens stepping up to the plate, either by volunteering or by foregoing more lucrative private-sector opportunities. They pay a price, which is why it is called public service. However, in our age of riling each other up via social media and call-to-arms cable news, the sacrifice we are asking of our public servants is much too steep a cost. School board members across the country dread town hall meetings because they know they will be shouted at for hours.
Many need security to make it out the door to their cars, and quite a few are reminded that “we know where you live.” Police officers, who have to assess the danger of a situation in a split second in order to keep themselves and the public safe, are as a group lumped in with every bad apple who ever put on the uniform. And teachers have been fully thrust into the middle of the mask mandate debate, having to deal with angry parents on both sides of the dispute.
The great “I’ve done my part, but now I’m done with this crap” tsunami is headed our way, and we have no one to blame but ourselves. We are losing members of Congress with years and years of experience and a track record of actually legislating. Congressional staffers at all levels are analyzing their quality of life and monthly paychecks and then updating their resumes as a result. Classroom sizes next year and for years to come will only get bigger because we’ll have fewer teachers for more students. Police officers are working more and longer shifts because there are fewer bodies to help keep our communities safe. And on school boards across the country, there are now countless opportunities for extremists from either side of the political spectrum to pick up vacated seats and transform what and how our children are learning.
It is crucial that we as a society figure out how to tone down our disagreements. We each have the responsibility to take the spotlight away from those whose business model is anger and division. It is time to come to our senses and stop empowering those who peddle tribalism and belligerence for personal gain, be they on the airwaves, internet or Capitol Hill. They are the ones who are actively stoking the flames of anger and threats, and they are the ones preventing Americans from living up to the best versions of ourselves.