In the aftermath of Tucson, my congressional colleagues and I have been reflecting on the potential dangers of public life and the importance of accessibility to a functioning democracy. The fact is, persons with mental disabilities are occasionally motivated by their illness to contact and even confront members of Congress. From time to time, my own offices have dealt with such individuals.
These incidents were always sad, difficult to deal with and potentially dangerous. None of them, however, appeared to be motivated by talk radio or the political debate of the day. I do not know what motivated Jared Loughner to do what he did when he shot my colleague from Arizona. However, I strongly suspect it has far more to do with untreated mental illness than anything he may have heard on the radio.
I disagree with those (left and right) who have suggested that Rachel Maddow or Rush Limbaugh may somehow be to blame for what happened. But I agree quite strongly with President Obama that this is a good time for us to “make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.”
Coarse political rhetoric is nothing new. In the 1884 presidential election, Democrat Grover Cleveland accused Republican James Blaine of corruption with the slogan “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, The Continental Liar from the State of Maine.” In turn, Blaine spread rumors that Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child with the slogan “Ma, Ma, Where’s my Pa, Gone to the White House, Ha! Ha! Ha!”
While it is easy to brush the coarsest of political rhetoric off as “par for the course,” the truth is that our democracy is better than that. In fact, the essential element of our democracy is our ability to work together regardless of party affiliation.
Historians often point to our fourth presidential election as the most important early test of our Constitution. Why? Because in 1801 power was peacefully transferred from one party to another, willingly and without violence. John Adams (a Federalist) relinquished power to Thomas Jefferson (a Democratic-Republican), setting a foundation upon which our democracy still rests.
Adams and Jefferson, who had once co-authored the Declaration of Independence, had since become bitter political opponents. Yet his country and the principles of civility mattered more to John Adams than power or victory. Later, in retirement, Adams and Jefferson carried on a robust correspondence that lasted until they both died on the same day: July 4, 1826.
The Founders set many fine examples for those of us who have followed. This one is among the very best.
We Americans have always disagreed over important issues and we always will. The issues we face are too important for us not to feel strongly about them. We must remember, though, that the way we conduct ourselves in debate will either strengthen or weaken our democracy.
The world is full of unavoidable dangers, from hurricanes to terrorism to the violence of the crazed gunman. As long as we cling to the fundamental decency upon which democracy depends, every one of these dangers can be overcome.
In Tucson, President Obama said, “We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another, that’s entirely up to us.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Rep. Joe Pitts represents Pennsylvania’s Sixteenth Congressional District.