At the outset of a new republic based on democratic principles, the prolific Thomas Jefferson wrote eloquently about the importance of public service. Having done his part to break from the governance of a distant monarchy, Jefferson saw true nobility in public service provided by members of a self-governing citizenry. Jefferson recognized a duty of meaningful participation not only in those providing public service but also in those served. In his words, “a nation that rests on the will of the people must also depend on individuals to support its institutions in whatever ways are appropriate if it is to flourish.”
Fast forwarding to the present day, Jefferson’s words are just as applicable. But if we were to look through the lens of Jeffersonian ideals (including those of countless others) and assess our participation in governance and the many societal institutions of the day, how would we fare? What is the level of our public discourse? In this day and age, you can’t turn on the TV or open a newspaper without encountering someone ridiculing or engaging in colorful demagoguery against an elected official. Whether it be a late-night comic taking on the finer points of the Iran Nuclear deal, some young talking head on a favorite cable channel, or an editor of some publication, the consumer need not wait long before a lethal headshot is taken at some individual whose only crime was to run and win an elected office. The critiques are often shrill, pointed, brutish and nakedly and offensively partisan – even if it is pretended otherwise. How did we get here?
While spirited debate is an essential part of our system and to be encouraged, we all need to remember the nobility of how our government works and let that inform our participation. To reduce that debate to cheap attacks for entertainment or other selfish purposes denigrates the very process that defines who we are as Americans. The fact that there have been specific instances over the years of extreme and questionable behavior on the part of certain (finite number of) public officials does NOT justify the unrestrained firebombing of every public official that subsequently steps into the arena to serve. Real thought must be given to the negative effects that such journalistic tar and feathering – intended for the sole purpose of demeaning and tearing down elected officials – has on our system and on ourselves.
I recognize, perhaps more than most, that politics has always had elements of being a blood sport. There is no starker example than the duel on July 11, 1804 between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. Both were prominent American politicians – Burr was the sitting Vice President and Hamilton was the former Secretary of the Treasury. The duel was the culmination of a long and bitter political rivalry which proved in the end to be, quite literally, deadly. It stands as the extreme example of the negative consequences of turning the public debate of ideas and opposing views into insults, personal attacks, and ultimately, deadly violence.
While most public officials have not engaged in duels, virtually every politician has had to endure an unwarranted amount of personal attack, not only from political opponents, but also from the media and even members of the public at large. I recall running for local office in 1989 as an idealistic 24-year-old who wanted to serve the community he was raised in. I made fliers and personally delivered one to every single household in my town. One of the residents, who made sure to remain anonymous, stuffed my handout back into an envelope and returned it to me with a lovely note in all caps – I WOULD NOT VOTE FOR YOU FOR DOG CATCHER (he/she must not have read my material because I was not running for dog catcher). Another non-supporter informed me that our town would never vote for a Chinese candidate (thankfully I was the Korean-Irish one). You get my point. It dawned on me then, in 1989, that a certain segment of our population will always hate and/or loathe those of us who dare to run or hold a public office. Since then, I’ve had my share of irate emails, hate phone calls and confrontations from upset constituents – this is to be expected. I have also had my share of media attacks, some fair and some not. I have also been subject to some limited, uninformed, rumor-based, media-mongering and that is unfortunate. As a proponent of open debate, I do not see how these communications did anything but express personal animus which did not contribute at all to a discussion of issues I was running to address. And that type of media mongering should be curtailed, if not eliminated. I firmly believe that some of the more reckless and slanted political media coverage of today (left and right) has helped water and nurture the underlying angst and resentment that people have towards office-seekers and holders.
As an elected official, I always felt the public had every right to question my colleagues and me on the issues. That is a fundamental part of the process and reflects valued rights we all share. These rights are so highly esteemed, in fact, that it is incumbent upon us to protect them by employing them in the right way. This includes, in my view, as consumers of media. We are all bombarded every day with the pernicious words of modern day politicos whose sole purpose is to proffer negative opinions about a president, governor or some other elected official. I would suggest that before you buy in to the vitriol, consider the political bona fides (or lack thereof) of the commentator. I urge you to look beyond derisiveness and sensationalism and keep your eye on the issues and the public service actually being provided. Our goal should not to be entertained but to participate in a way that helps our nation flourish.
When I was growing up, my mother would tell the real-life stories of how she and her family had to escape from Communist North Korea when she was a young girl. Hearing my mother tell about the horrific consequences of living under a cruel and despotic regime, I learned to value our system of government and individual liberties at a young age. Perhaps it was these stories that motivated me to go into public service in the first place. I still fully believe in our system of government. I still believe that holding an elective office is an honorable pursuit. I believe in the importance of engaging in meaningful debate on public issues and insisting on accountability. All of this requires not only good individuals to seek office, but a robust press to hold people accountable. However, I fundamentally believe we need to engage in this process with more civility and decorum.
We all need to do our part by not just participating in the process but also by elevating the political discourse. We need to keep focused on important issues and not individual politicians, or worse, their families.
It takes courage to put your name on a ballot, run for office, and sacrifice time away from family and personal pursuits. That courage and the tremendous effort required to run for public office should be respected. In fact, our respect is essential. Indeed, the substance and manner of our participation- yours and mine- is critical to the continued success of our nation. Just ask Thomas Jefferson.
Chair of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Kevin O’Toole is the former Senator from the 40th District.