The hateful language in politics that seemed to crystallize in Wednesday’s shootings sparked anguished pleas for moderation on Capitol Hill and fears that civility in the nation is an increasingly fragile veneer.
Lawmakers and their allies demonize their opponents, and the political shout-fests on cable thrive on stoking division. Still, politicians, activists and the media all wring their hands over how volatile our politics has become.
A congresswoman is shot in a supermarket parking lot while meeting constituents. Protestors are attacked at presidential rallies, egged on from the stage by the candidate himself. Now Wednesday morning, a member of the congressional leadership – Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La. ‑ is critically wounded during a practice for an annual charity baseball game.
“We’ve been headed in this direction for a long time,” said Carolyn Lukensmeyer, executive director of National Institute for Civil Discourse, a group organized following the attempted assassination of former Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona in 2011. “It’s one more dreadful example of how social norms are completely crumbling.”
Rep. Rodney Davis, an Illinois Republican, was at bat as Republican lawmakers hit the practice field when the gunfire erupted.
“I never thought I’d go to baseball practice for charity and have to dodge bullets,” he told Fox News.
Returning to the Capitol later in the day, still in his baseball uniform, his pants covered in dirt, his left arm bleeding from the fracas, Davis said in an interview: “It’s my breaking point. This has to stop. Hate has to stop. We can disagree on policies as Republicans and Democrats, as Americans, but that’s what makes this country great because we are Americans.”
Indeed, almost as soon as the gunfire died down on the Alexandria, Va., baseball diamond filled with legislators, their aides and members of a Capitol security detail, the calls rang out to turn down the nation’s white-hot political debate, which has riven Washington politics unlike any other time in recent memory.
Policy debates ‑ health care, climate change; take your pick ‑ are no longer disagreements in search of a compromise. They are zero sum games for one side or the other – and battle axes designed to further cleave the country.
“Your adversary has become your enemy,” said former Kansas Congressman Dan Glickman, a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “There’s alot more tribal thinking: either you’re with us or against us. The culture is just much more divisive. We need to take a deep breath.”
A survey by the Pew Research Center in January before President Donald Trump’s inauguration found that 86 percent of the public described the country as more politically divided than in the past. That followed a bitter election campaign whose hallmark was Russia’s attempt to influence the outcome – and a question that still lingers: did it collude with the Trump campaign? Was his victory unfairly gained?
More evidence of polarized culture emerged six months earlier, Pew found that more than half of the Democrats surveyed said the Republican Party makes them “afraid,” while nearly half of Republicans expressed a similar fear about the Democrats.
"Sometimes we do let our rhetoric go a little bit too far,” Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, told reporters Wednesday. “I think it's better to relax it. Everybody here is a good person. Everybody here is trying to serve their constituents as best they can. We have different personalities. There's no question about that. Some need more policing than others."
Hatch, the second most senior member of the Senate, is something of a throwback. A conservative, he can be as fierce a partisan on issues as anyone. Yet among his closest colleagues in the Senate was the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass, the Senate’s leading liberal and political bete noir of Republicans for decades.
The deepening political divide is representative of the cultural splits elsewhere. College campuses, for instance, thought to be bastions of free speech and open thinking, have become places where students protest and shout down speakers whose view they oppose. Students demand “safe spaces” where they can be sealed off from rhetoric they find disturbing or hurtful.
During last year’s president campaign, Trump ginned up his crowds by criminalizing his opponent, Hillary Clinton, with the chant, “Lock her up.” It was a reference to an FBI investigation into questions about whether she had classified material on her private email server.
More recently, Trump has villified the media, referring to critical stories about him as “fake news” and referring to the press as the “enemy of the people.”
Lawmakers, meanwhile, said they face greater risks than ever before an angry and divided populace, no matter on which side of the partisan divide they fall.
Rep. Dave Brat, a Virginia Republican who helped usher in the rise of the Tea Party rebellion against establishment Republicans, said he and a smattering of legislators from both parties were in the Capitol gym, interacting cordially away from the public eye, when news broke of the shootings.
“We were riding bikes looking at the TV, just taking it in. What’s next?” Brat asked.
He said security for members is “nothing near what it needs to be,” pointing to a spate of recent town halls meetings this spring in which angry constituents confronted lawmakers. “We go out in front of 1,000 people screaming, it only takes one person that’s off the reservation and you are in trouble,” Brat said. “Now everybody is going to reassess the risk.”
Political tensions haven’t abated much since the divisive fall campaign, and a popular election that was won by Clinton but captured by Trump in the Electoral College.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who ran as a Democrat but lost the nomination to Clinton, gathered support among many who saw both traditional parties as corrupt or ineffective.
Rep. Martha McSally, an Arizona Republican, said she’s witnessed the divisions up close.
“I’ve met some people in the last few weeks that have different politics within their marriage or within their family, and they, like, can hardly talk to each other,” said McSally. “Come on, America. We are Americans and we need to be united. The enemy is out there. The enemy is not in here.”
McSally holds the seat for the Arizona district once occupied by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who fell in the path of a mass shooter in a Tucson suburb on Jan. 8, 2011. Giffords was hit in the head, but survived, while six others died.
McSally noted that the FBI had arrested a man in her district last month that had left three threats on her voicemail, one of them saying her days “were numbered” because of her support for Trump.
"The political rhetoric in this country is only worsening, and there is a lot of anger and agitation out there," said Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Pa. “We're all here to work hard, we're all here to get things done, Republicans and Democrats, even if we disagree. "
Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kansas, tried to grab a tendril of hope.
“If there's any silver lining in today's tragedy, it's that my colleagues and I are taking time to reflect on our deep divisions and the caustic tone of Congressional debate and remember we are all on the same team," he said.
Still, the suburban Kansas City congressman added: "I do think many of my colleagues will be looking over their shoulders a bit more."
Lindsay Wise and Katherine Glueck contributed to this story.