Column: Let's step back from madness of national politics
Kerry Tymchuk is executive director of the Oregon Historical Society and worked for Republican lawmakers in Washington, D.C., for many years.
For five-and-a-half years, I had the incredible privilege of working in the temple of our democracy — the United States Capitol Building. As a member of the staff of then Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole, my office was just yards away from the Senate Chamber and the Capitol rotunda. When visitors came to his office, Sen. Dole would often point out that it was there where in 1814, British soldiers started the fire that would nearly destroy the building.
As I watched last week's horrific invasion of the Capitol — this time by a mob of American citizens — I couldn't help but wonder what was happening to those who sat where I once did. Had they barricaded the office doors? Had they been safely evacuated? And as the day went on, I joined with countless other Americans in asking the larger question: How did we sink so low and how do we get back up?
I wish I could say that the assault on the Capitol surprised me. Sadly, it didn't. History will always reflect that the Trump Administration began four years ago with the insistence that the crowd attending his inauguration was the largest in history — a claim that was demonstrably false, and it will end with the demonstrably false claims of President Trump — and those in Congress who shamelessly played along — that he won the election by millions of votes, that there was massive fraud in all of the swing states, and that Congress or the vice president could overturn the election. Just as falsely shouting "fire" in a crowded theater can lead to dangerous yet foreseeable results, so, too, can falsely shouting "fraud" to those who believe you. If the last four years have taught us anything, I hope they have reminded us of the enduring wisdom of the old saying that while everyone is entitled to their own opinion, they are not entitled to their own facts. Facts matter. The truth matters.
Along with facts and the truth, what also is needed now more than ever in the public arena is basic civility and decency. I have been a participant in or a student of American politics for my entire adult life, and if there is one consistent trend I have witnessed over the past several decades, it is the steep decline in those qualities — both in our elected officials and in those who vote for them.
To be sure, politics has always been rough, and Democrats and Republicans were not locking arms and singing "kumbaya" when I worked in the Senate in the 1990s. There was, however, a tradition and an understanding that progress was achieved through compromise, and that your opponent was just that — your opponent — and not your enemy. You debated your opponent, you didn't demonize them. It was a contest of ideas, not a contest of insults and invectives.
Instead of rejecting those who seemed to prefer making America bitter over making America better, the voters all too often not only rewarded them with election and re-election, they all too often mirrored their behavior. I experienced this first hand here in Oregon when I was working for U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith. Sen. Smith, a Republican, and his colleague, Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, formed a bipartisan friendship, which led them to travel the state together, holding an annual series of joint town halls.
These town halls were open to all who wanted to attend, and for years we could count on overflow crowds who were delighted to have an opportunity to talk with their two senators and to see them working together. Eventually, however, we were forced to greatly reduce the number and frequency of town halls and to limit the number of citizens who could attend. Why? Because organized groups on both fringes of the political spectrum appeared at the meetings intent on shouting down the senators and preventing any meaningful conversation.
It goes without saying — or tweeting — that it has become much easier to make personal attacks or to spread disinformation, thanks to the advent and prevalence of social media.
It's also no secret that Oregon's and Portland's elected leaders have found it increasingly difficult to hold meetings without being subjected to "verbal vandalism," just as struggling small businesses have been victims of physical vandalism to their restaurants and stores.
I am an optimist at heart, and rather than concluding that Jan. 6 is a point of no return, I see it as a timely reminder that we must not take our democracy for granted. I agree with columnist David Brooks, who wrote, "I'm among those who think this is an inflection point, a step back from madness. We're a divided nation, but we don't need to be a nation engulfed in lies, lawlessness and demagogic incitement."
Taking that step back from madness begins with remembering what truly matters in our public officials and in our private lives: Character. Integrity. Decency. The rule of law. Facts. Truth. Perhaps no elected official exemplified those qualities more than the late Mark Hatfield. And as our nation steps back from the madness of last week, let us put into action these words of Sen. Hatfield: "All of us need each other, all of us must lift and pull others as we rise, all of us must rise together — powerful, free, one self-determined people."
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