Self-government can only work if we don’t reward threats and violence.

Self-government can only work if we don’t reward threats and violence.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Angry residents react when the Utah County Commission meeting was adjourned before it even started. The group protesting mandatory masks in schools removed social distancing tape from chairs and filled the Utah County commission room to overflowing, prompting Commissioner Tanner Ainge to call for a vote to adjourn the meeting in Provo on Wednesday, July 15. 2020.

This is how it starts. Or, perhaps, how it ends.

Public life and public service in the United States, in Utah, in Salt Lake County, is getting meaner, more personal, sometimes even more violent. School board and county council meetings deteriorated into matches where arrests were made or meetings had to be adjourned for the safety of those involved.

The private homes of officials have been picketed and the Salt Lake County Chief Electoral Officer is hiring more security for his office ahead of the 2022 election. Those who bother to run in local and state elections are rewarded with confrontations, personal threats and cyberbullying that target not only officials but also their family members.

This is not how democracy is supposed to work. It is increasingly an atmosphere where democracy cannot work. And it’s scary to think that’s what some of us want.

It is up to all of us to oppose an approach to self-government where decisions are made by those who shout the loudest, do the most damage or carry the heaviest weapons.

Some legislation, such as Utah’s 2021 law prohibiting picketing in private homes, is appropriate. Public officials who are the target of threats or intimidation should report it to law enforcement.

But the real solution to this problem is less legal than cultural. Democracy works through the free expression of ideas, and that does not include threatening or violent acts aimed at preventing those you disagree with from expressing their ideas. Or do their job.

We must not fall into a society where people who care about the public good, those who are prepared to handle the sometimes long, boring, frustrating and back-and-forth business of self-government, are too afraid to come forward or being elected because they fear for their emotional and physical safety and that of their loved ones.

Yes, American history includes terrible examples of political violence, including deadly duels and US senators fighting with sticks. And this inconvenience that started in 1861. But we had reason to think that we had left all that behind us.

Then we started to see people with guns taking over federal wildlife refuges, standing in the galleries of state capitol buildings and storming the US Capitol when they didn’t like not actions taken by duly elected or appointed government officials.

Even where there is no gun violence, people who once wouldn’t sneer at a school crossing guard now seem to feel justified in yelling at county commissioners and school board members simply because of decisions that they don’t approve.

This disturbing trend can be attributed, in part, to the cultural upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the reluctance of far too many people to understand that the appropriate response to a public health crisis is public action. Far-right social media chatter and extremist broadcasting have spread lies and rage that have caused us far worse death tolls and damage to our economy and education system than necessary.

But there is also a Trumpist and fascist thread in our nation, our communities, that stems from fear that the white, male, Christian power structure is somehow threatened and on the verge of being overthrown. It is a fear deep enough that a growing number – although still, thankfully, a minority – feel the need to take up arms and issue threats rather than trust the process of open debate and free elections. .

Democracy can only work if those who lose an election can believe that there will be another election. That power, temporarily, goes to those who make the best case and get the most votes, not those willing and able to apply the most brutal force and shout the loudest.

Even if democracy in Utah and the United States does not completely collapse, we still do not want to live in a society where only the physically brave and heavily armed can hold office or have influence.

We want it to be normal for voters, citizens, everyone, to approach their elected officials, in public meetings and on street corners, to say what they think. This is something we will all lose if too many public servants have reason to fear interactions with the public.

Today, the world respects and respects the Ukrainian leadership and people because they do not attack democracy but give everything to defend it. They did not seek this bloodbath and everything indicates that they will lay down their arms and resume a normal life as soon as the Russian threat is over.

Utahns and Americans don’t need to put their lives on the line to defend their democracy. At least not yet. But we all have a responsibility to uphold a peaceful exercise of self-government that does not give an unfair and undeserved advantage to those who seek power through anger, threats and violence.

About Wilhelmina Go

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