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Thoughts on Gabby Giffords and Political Participation

I heard about the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords while I was at a delegate selection event in my district. It’s about the smallest form of retail democracy you can imagine. Basically, across California this weekend, Democrats select individuals to represent them at the state convention for a two-year term. Some friends of mine were running and I came out to vote. The highest vote-getter yesterday got about 175 votes, a huge number. These are tiny events for local activists.

My State Assemblywoman was there, so was a local LA City Councilwoman, Janice Hahn, who ran for Lieutenant Governor last year. I saw several other people who were campaign aides for a State Senate candidate (we have an upcoming special election), and staffers for members of Congress.

The people in that room would be the normal group of people at a constituent event for a member of Congress. They are the people who participate and engage with their government at the root level. They skew older – it’s no surprise at all that three of the dead citizens at the Giffords shooting were in their late 70s. The staff level is almost always college or recently post-college; the fact that the heroic intern who ran into the incoming fire and protected Giffords’ wounds happens to be gay is not at all out of the ordinary.

It was impossible not to reflect on this completely normal, everyday political event where I heard the news. Politicians were within 10 feet of me, with no security barrier between me and them. And that’s how it needs to be. That’s how democracy works. The simple expression of political participation is what we ought to foster more in America. Events like the attack in Tuscon chill that participation, place an aura of danger and disquiet over them. As Richard Kim wrote, this attack – regardless of motive, regardless of the individual involved – is a larger attack on democracy itself. Nobody – Democratic, Republican or independent – was barred from that constituent event in the Tuscon Safeway. And pretty much everyone, in the back of their mind, will think about what happened in Tuscon the next time they think about attending a town hall meeting or some other political event.

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that the effect of the great town hall meeting freakout of 2009 was to degrade the integrity of political participation in government. Well before that even happened, I wrote about a concerted effort on the right to minimize such participation. In 2008, faced with a juggernaut of political participation on the left, they sought to make support and excitement untenable, to connect it with undesirable images of cult worship and Kool-Aid drinking. When that enthusiasm gap turned around in 2010, the claws retracted and such participation was hailed as the very hallmark of American freedom. But in the process, the discourse undeniably coarsened. Only one type of political engagement was seen as legitimate, only one fitting the proud tradition of the past, only one worth celebrating and not demonizing.

As Emanuel Cleaver said today, there is a dull roar of hostility in today’s political discourse. You can deny it, you can be defensive and noticeably guilty about it, you can lazily attribute it to both sides and conclude that it all cancels each other out, you can try to explain it away. You cannot deny its existence. And you cannot deny that this brutal attack on an ordinary political event has a resonance back to that hostility.

The worst thing that could happen in the wake of this is for politicians to curtail their access to the people they represent. The better reaction is to not be terrorized and to encourage more political participation, to allow the normal processes of politics to continue. We’ve had assassinations in the past and we’ll have more in the future. The hostility in the discourse is repugnant, and if leaders consider their audience – the intended and the unintended – when they make public statements, that will be helpful. But they cannot stop making those statements. They cannot stop appearing in public. Democracy dies when you have to even think twice about exercising your rights as a citizen.

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David Dayen

David Dayen