The images of solidarity were stirring.
After the ambush Wednesday morning of the Republican Congressional baseball team on a practice field in suburban Virginia that critically wounded Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana and four others, our natural instinct was to come together.
The next night, the annual charity game between Republicans and Democrats went on as scheduled, with players from both squads wearing gold caps in honor of Scalise’s college alma mater and gathering near second base, Scalise’s position, to share hugs and prayers. House leaders Paul Ryan and Nancy Pelosi and Senate leaders Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer stood together.
But in some toxic and tone-deaf quarters, the moment did not last. Blame for the shootings was quickly and eagerly cast, each side pointing at the other.
Our national politics are probably too tribal now to expect a single event to produce a transformation. The horror of 9/11 offered a respite that didn’t last a year. The shooting of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in 2011 failed to budge the needle.
Last week’s shooting in Alexandria gave us a different kind of revelation. It exposed a cancer that is destroying our civic health. Our political fights are too destructive; our language is far too coarse. We accept raging anger as a normal reaction. We have dehumanized our opponents; pollsters and political scientists say personal animus between Democratic and Republican voters is worse than it’s ever been. Rather than indicting terrorism or guns, the baseball practice shooting implicated us.
How can we move forward?
Principles before politics
More than a half-century ago, principled leaders and strong institutions shepherded the nation through crises. In the turbulence of the 1960s and early 1970s — the era of the fight for civil rights, Vietnam War protests, political assassinations, the Watergate scandal and a presidential impeachment — guidance came from leaders who put principles before politics and institutions that provided checks and balances.
Now our institutions are weakened — some by their own failures to help everyday Americans in distress, others by daily attacks on their legitimacy by President Donald Trump and many of his supporters. That’s not a purely partisan view; two-thirds of American adults say Trump has little or no respect for the nation’s democratic institutions and traditions, according to a recent Associated Press poll. That should scare all of us.
Can our elected officials lead? Who will rise up beyond the partisan fray to display courage? And will we listen?
America needs more than principled political leaders. It needs religious leaders and civic leaders, business leaders and tech leaders. It needs retired elder statesmen and activists just starting out. The media, too, must acknowledge the role it plays when it provides forums for extremists from both sides to yell at each other and spout untruths that degrade debate.
But the kind of leadership the nation needs also starts with each of us. It’s shown in what we teach our children, in the respect we have for each other and in what we demand from our elected representatives. It’s in how we respond to ideas and messages with which we disagree. It’s what we do today and tomorrow and next week, because leadership is not of a moment. It is most needed at certain moments but it must be consistent.
It requires integrity, as Dwight D. Eisenhower said. It means being willing to learn, as per John F. Kennedy. Their wisdom is potent. We’d be wise to listen.
The battles to come
The stakes are high. There will be hard times ahead that threaten to cleave us further. The Senate is writing its version of a polarizing health care bill in secret, to thwart any debate. Trump acknowledged Friday that he is under investigation for the fallout from the Russia probe, and he is attacking the independence of the Justice Department and the FBI in response. Not only will this further harden partisanship, but it also will further undercut the validity of important institutions and norms that are vital to this nation’s values.
Many of us are growing queasy at the legal and political battles that are to come. Even Vice President Mike Pence has hired a criminal lawyer.
Americans will need a common frame of reference, we will need to recognize undisputed facts, and we will need to acknowledge that our institutions must remain strong for our democracy to thrive. That requires the kind of skilled and courageous leadership without which, Harry S. Truman said, society stands still.
The Congressional baseball game in Washington brought people together for a night, another national institution working as balm on an open wound. The optics were powerful and important.
But if nothing changes, if the partisan plague continues, then that beautiful ballgame will be nothing more than a fleeting, empty symbol of what might have been.