Uncivil political wars a threat to public service


Last year, as legislators debated a sweeping mental health reform bill, protestors in the state Capitol’s hallways chanted, “Heads on pikes! Heads on pikes!”

The QAnon-inspired crowd somehow thought the bill was pro-pedophile and anti-gun.

“That’s not a benign chant,” said state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, a sponsor of the bipartisan bill and a master of the obvious. “I wondered what it is? Is it a rallying cry? Is it performative? Is it a threat?”

I’d venture to answer: All of the above!

I called the Democrat because she’s been around the Capitol for 40 years and is qualified to answer a couple of questions: Are things meaner? (Yes.) Does that drive people away from public service? (Probably. Or at least those who are rational.)

This week it was announced that State Election Board chairman Bill Duffy had resigned after a bit more than a year of service. By most accounts, Duffy, was a conservative (small c) and fair arbiter of the state’s election laws and brought gravitas to the board, having spent 14 years as a federal judge.

But conspiracy theorists and Stop the Steal shouters don’t care about resumes. Earlier this month, Duffy tried to defuse a hostile crowd by appealing to their sense of civics and faith.

“Democracy is best exercised when there is decorum and people don’t speak over each other,” he said. He then intoned a pre-meeting benediction appealing to all religions, “whether it’s a Christian God, or a Muslim God, or a Jewish God, or any other God of any other faith.”

Not surprisingly, his call to civility and a higher power went over like a fart in church. Now he’s leaving. Duffy declined to discuss his exit.

Oliver once thanked Duffy for his service and for doing Gov. Brian Kemp a solid by taking the thankless job. (Actually, it’s a volunteer position, a fact Duffy mentioned at that same meeting. He got criticized for saying that, too.)

“Federal judges are used to a whole lot of respect but he didn’t realize the first rule of politics is that no good deed does unpunished,” Oliver told me.

Sara Tindall Ghazal, a fellow election board member, noted “the position (of chair) was open for a year before (Duffy) was picked. That speaks volumes.”

“It’s hard to get people to step up,” she said. “The slings and arrows come from everywhere.”

The tribalism, dehumanizing rhetoric, threats and angry mobs are now features of political and public service, from library boards to the presidency.

The GBI this week asked legislators to report threats to the agency in the wake of Donald Trump’s indictment.

A Gallup poll from July said Americans’ trust in 16 societal institutions has slumped badly in recent years. Topping the high-confidence scale were: small business, the military and police, at respectively 65%, 60% and 43%.

From there, confidence sinks, with the medical system at 34%, churches at 32%, the presidency and public schools at 26%, TV news at 14% and Congress at 8%.

Is it the chicken or the egg? Do the activities of people in every one of those institutions cause the plummet in faith? Or is it just de rigueur to hate everything and everyone?

In 2021, two Dutch professors looked at research on the topic and titled their study, “The effects of political incivility on political trust and political participation.”

They started out pointing to a poll saying “93% of Americans think incivility is a problem, 75% believe it is worsening, 80% think it creates dangerously high risks to society, and 88% think it leads to violent behavior.” And that poll was conducted in 2019, before the George Floyd protests and Trump’s Stop the Steal antics.

“Showing a lack of respect for political opponents is likely to adversely affect democracy itself,” the profs wrote. “Persuasion, compromise, and the sense that the other side won the argument in good faith, give way to the sense that the fight should be won at all costs.”

Everyone is angry.

After the Atlanta City Council vote in June to fund the public safety training center, three white activists rushed the dais and yelled threats at Councilman Jason Winston, who’s Black. “I’ll catch you outside, (expletive)!” one yelled.

Later, someone sent him a message: “I hope you end up like George Floyd.”

Last year, Cindy Castello, a GOP elections board member in Cherokee County (69% Trump), chided the audience saying, “We’re not sitting up here any longer allowing anyone to belittle our office staff, our attorney, or us. It’s wrong.”

I called Tuesday to see if anything has changed. She resigned two months ago after 33 years.

“I was tired of the rudeness,” Castello said. “We’ve been called liars, cheaters, even Communists. It’s very discouraging.”

The group of the angry and aggrieved coming to meetings has “grown and grown,” she said. Some have followed the elections supervisor home. Others have shown up at the office to menace staff.

The board even asked the county for bulletproof glass. “All it takes is one nut case,” Castello said.

The Republican has tried to appeal to the crowds saying, “I vote like you vote. If I was cheating, I’d cheat for our side.”

Castello added, “All I want is an honest election.”

Anymore, that seems to be too much for some.

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