Bullying and intimidation are nothing new to American politics. In 1856, Congressman Preston Brooks famously beat Senator Charles Sumner with a walking stick. Just ten years ago, state Senator Charles Bishop assaulted state Senator Lowell Barron on the floor of the Alabama Senate.
People can be passionate about their beliefs, especially their political beliefs. For the most part, these passions are not expressed in violent ways. But recently we have seen our country become more violent over politics, and part of that increase in violence is due to the example our leaders have set.
This isn’t a partisan issue either. There are people behaving badly on both sides of the aisle, and leaders in both political parties have failed to speak out against the bullying, violence and intimidation. Some of them have even encouraged some of it as a means of keeping their base supporters energized.
But this is not healthy for our country, and it isn’t healthy for the political parties.
The rhetoric coming from some of our political leaders has led to extremism on both sides. Words matter, and now we are seeing the impact of those words.
In Birmingham, the Levite Jewish Community Center has already faced three bomb threats since January 1st, each time forcing small children and babies (some of whom aren’t even Jewish) to flee the building. All across the country, local law enforcement and the FBI are reporting an increase in threats against Jewish people and other groups targeted by white supremacists and the alt-right.
On the other side, we’ve seen extremists turn what started as peaceful protests turn into violence and rioting in Portland, the campus at U.C. Berkley and other places. And during an interview on CNN, alt-right leader and white supremacist Richard Spencer was sucker punched in the face by someone wearing a mask.
Even when it’s not an act of violence, we are seeing an increase of division, bullying and intimidation. This is a particularly big problem on social media!
As a political strategy, these acts of violence, bullying and intimidation will only backfire (there is plenty of research that backs this up). And our political leaders who choose to feed into this extremism are only making the country, and the political parties, weaker.
Our country was founded on the concept of what Thomas Jefferson called “a bloodless revolution,” the idea that power can change hands without resorting to violence. Our democracy works because we can agree to disagree on the issues without falling back on violence, lawlessness or childish behavior.
In the Alabama Legislature, there are some representatives and senators who do have the strength to stand up for what is right and vote with a convicted heart without letting politics get personal or influence their opinion about the character of other members. But unfortunately there are many other legislators who will not stand up or vote their conscience out of fear of political repercussions, either from voters or from other legislators.
The violence, bullying and intimidation has to stop! Whether we like it or not, public leaders set the example. It’s time for our leaders to speak out against these kinds of behaviors instead of staying quiet out of fear, or worse, trying to harness this destructive energy in the hope of getting some sort of electoral advantage. When politicians win like that, it’s America that loses.
Alabama House of Representatives. He served as the House Minority Leader from 2010-2017.