Twice in seven years members of Congress have been targets of political violence. We don’t know all the facts surrounding the attack on the Republican Conference’s baseball practice this morning. And we need to acknowledge that former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords’ would-be assassin was the victim of psychological delusions. But we can’t dismiss the impact that fraught, if not apocalyptic, political rhetoric is having on those teetering near the edge.
Words alone don’t prompt shootings. But this recent spate of violence reflects a profound change in the culture of public discourse. In all too many cases government has become a venue for settling scores rather than solving problems. Angry, divisive words are setting the stage for the unhinged to act out. We need to acknowledge that change—and we need to find a new way forward.
Decades ago, when my father, Birch, was a Democratic senator up for re-election, the Republican Leader, Everett Dirksen, walked across the Senate floor to ask how he could help his colleague’s campaign. They were friends and colleagues first—not partisans or ideologues. Something like that is unimaginable today. If today’s Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), were to offer his help to my friend Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), McConnell would be pilloried by the Republican base—and progressives would wonder if Donnelly were a true ally. The same would happen if the Democratic leader made a similar offer to an incumbent Republican.
American democracy is supposed to be a competition of ideas. Elected officials are supposed to have spirited debates. As the saying goes, “politics ain’t beanbag.” But whatever their disagreements, an indelible comity once existed across the partisan divide. Fellowship did not end at the partisan edge.
In an age of increasingly heated debate—in an era defined too often by rhetorical vitriol—the Congressional Baseball Game was one of the few remaining respites. Each spring, colleagues who might otherwise be prone to excoriate one another on the floor of the House or Senate have met for a friendly game of balls and strikes. Their disagreements were never resolved in the course of nine innings. Members were unlikely to see eye-to-eye on a big vote simply because a Democratic second baseman chatted amiably for a moment with the Republican who’d hit a double. But for the few hours when they were engaged in America’s honored pastime, the stain of partisanship was overcome with a feeling of goodwill.
Now even that is tarnished.
Political violence is not new to American democracy. Sen. Preston Brooks caned Sen. Charles Sumner during the great debate over slavery that defined antebellum politics. When I was a boy, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, and George Wallace were shot within five years of one another. Each of those men was victimized in the flash of political anger at moments when American democracy was most aflame. But after the Civil War, and even in the decades that followed the zenith of the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War, tempers abated. Political disagreements remained—but comity prevailed.
Today, by contrast, there seems to be no ebb and flow. We’re perpetually entrenched in a vicious cycle. Democrats and Republicans see one another not as patriots with divergent perspectives but as adversaries with heretical points of view. Adversaries have become enemies. Opponents are not merely misguided—they’re evil, even un-American. Parties have become tribes. And American democracy has been rendered asunder.
No one denies that progressives and conservatives prescribe very different remedies for America’s big challenges. But our Constitution’s greatest virtue is that it gives conflicting points of view a peaceful path to resolution. Indeed, our foundational document, with its checks and balances, necessitates compromise. Or, at least, that’s what it’s supposed to do.
The shooting in Alexandria shouldn’t become fodder for political talking points. It’s a personal tragedy for Rep. Steve Scalise, the other victims and their families. Of course, Americans’ foremost liberty is the freedom of speech. Even the most ardently held views have a right to be expressed. But some level of civility and proportion is important. No one should shout “fire” in a crowded theater and be surprised by the ensuing chaos. No one should strike a match near dry tinder and be surprised at the ensuing flames.
We all need to redouble our efforts to find the common humanity beneath every political disagreement. In the end, no matter how wrongheaded you may believe the other side to be, we all want America to thrive. We all want a better future for our children. We’re all invested in one another’s success.
Let’s hear more reconciliation in our political debate. Let’s rethink our propensity to make every disagreement apocalyptic. Let’s resist the temptation to infer the worst motives to our adversaries. In the end, the American values that unite us are much stronger than those tearing us apart. Let’s remember that. And even amid a horrible tragedy, let’s celebrate and defend the great blessings of American democracy. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once observed: “We may have arrived on these shores in different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.”
Evan Bayh, a national co-chair of No Labels, served as governor of Indiana from 1989 to 1997 and as a U.S. senator from Indiana from 1999 to 2011.