By Sophie Huttner
In Vermont, a caller left messages on multiple election officials’ phones, warning them that they would face a “firing squad” after Trump lost the election in the state. In Florida, a poll worker reported that a group of Trump supporters had spat at his Black supervisor, called her a racial slur, and hit her in the forehead with an umbrella. In Georgia, an Elections Office employee was forced to go into hiding after a false claim spread online that he had thrown out a ballot. Another young election worker in the state received a message with an animated picture of a hanging noose.
Then finally, an angry mob stormed the United States Capitol, marking the culmination of a year of rising violence towards public officials at every single level of the American government. Egged on by a president trafficking in conspiracy theories and divisiveness, thousands of Americans attempted to blow up, both figuratively and literally, the most hallowed institutions of our democracy. As we examine how we arrived at this moment, we must remember that this violence did not begin on January 6th.
Before attacking the most powerful officials in government, insurgents rehearsed their intimidation tactics on hundreds of other public servants in their home states and local communities, many of whom did not have the protection of bodyguards or the benefit of national outrage on their behalf. In retrospect, it seems those of us who failed to foresee the chaos of January 6th did not pay enough attention to the preceding wave of anti-governmental violence sweeping America—perhaps because many of its targets were not well-known politicians, but merely everyday government workers.
Across the United States, citizens angry about pandemic policies or election results spent 2020 sending death threats, doxxing, organizing mobs outside homes, and leaving menacing voicemails in an attempt to terrorize local civil servants. One month after the November election, the threats did not abate. In early December, a website surfaced accusing an array of election officials of treason, accompanied by their home addresses and photos of them with targets on their faces. The message was clear: we are coming for you.
Similar incidents have targeted local health officials desperately attempting to enforce pandemic-related restrictions. Dr. Gail Newel, the health officer for Santa Cruz County, California, reported that she had received such menacing emails that her local law enforcement recommended she acquire a guard dog and a gun for self-protection. In Boise, Idaho, a Health Board meeting was interrupted when mobs of anti-mask protestors showed up outside multiple board members’ homes, knocking on their doors and threatening the officials and their families. At the house of one of the board members, Ted Epperly, a group of 15 people stood outside “beating garbage cans and flashing strobe lights through [his] windows.” The problem became so widespread that in August, the Journal of American Medicine published an article warning that the “harassment of public health officials must stop” if America was to effectively confront the pandemic.
How smaller-scale threats debilitate our democracy
If the goal of the mob attack on Congress was to blow up democracy, then the goal of each of these individual threats to local government officials has been to chip away at it, slowly but surely. While pro-democratic forces should of course focus their attention on large-scale violence, they must also stay vigilant against smaller and more local intimidation efforts, for three reasons. First, these intimidation attempts threaten to worsen partisan polarization, risking both the further deterioration of the public discourse and the politicization of American bureaucracy. Second, they deprive our civil service of desperately needed talent. And third, a rise in lower level attacks can indicate that the atmosphere is ripe for a larger-scale attack like the one that took place on January 6th.
Government departments becoming venues for partisan conflict poses a grave danger to our democracy. Until now, federal agencies have been one of the last bulwarks against the complete polarization of American civil society. Support for the largest government bureaucracies has remained consistently high in the past two decades among Republicans and Democrats alike. In recent polls, only 15% of Americans said they approved of Congress’ performance; in contrast, more than 60% of both Republicans and Democrats voiced approval for agencies like the Postal Service, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Census Bureau, and even the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Yet over the past year, disinformation paired with increasingly partisan rhetoric has fractured this widespread public support. Perhaps no agency has exemplified this phenomenon more than the CDC. In March 2020, at the start of the pandemic, 77% of Democrats and 84% of Republicans held a favorable view of the agency. By August, after months of internet-fueled conspiracies backed by the President and his supporters, only 53% of Republicans had a positive view of how “public health officials such as those at the CDC” have dealt with the pandemic. This decline in support for the agency, and the accompanying rise in threats against its employees, resulted from a cycle of politicization that began when the government exerted pressure on the agency to downplay the virus and amend their recommendations for safe pandemic practices. When the CDC continued making policy recommendations that contradicted the rhetoric of the President and other elected officials, science-based policies came to be seen as political attacks. Alternatively, when the agency bent under political pressure—like when they amended COVID school guidelines—they themselves undermined their status as an apolitical agency, and their efficacy as an organization.
This year it was public health officials at the center of partisan conflict; if the trajectory of hyperpartisanship continues, next year another government agency may find itself in the same position. Already, this fall witnessed the politicization of the Postal Service over the question of mail-in ballots. By appointing Louis Dejoy—a member of the RNC—to serve as Postmaster General, President Trump jeopardized the USPS’s non-partisan status. Like the CDC, the post office was forced to choose between carrying out its job or kowtowing to the President’s desire to delay the delivery of ballots. Ultimately, the USPS succeeded in delivering election mail on time. Yet in the process, its reputation as an apolitical agency was marred. Conservatives concerned about the security of mail voting accused the agency of destroying ballots and selling votes. The President himself claimed that in West Virginia, postal workers were dumping votes “in rivers.” Meanwhile, Democrats accused the post office of purposefully misleading voters by sending out election postcards with incorrect information. We are still awaiting data on whether support for the agency, at 91% for both Republicans and Democrats in March, has undergone a decline or partisan split in the months following the election.
In the future, the continued politicization of non-partisan government agencies could have potentially devastating consequences. Some 24 million Americans work for the U.S. government; they are our neighbors and family members. Increasingly, they have also become easy targets for those who seek to express partisan anger in their daily lives. Dozens have had their mental and physical well-being damaged by fellow citizens angry about the actions of their government. Each of these attacks threatens the lives of our civil service employees, the unity of our communities, and the health of American democracy.
Threats to government workers also deprive our nation’s civil service of valuable talent, undermining government efficacy at a time of crisis for our country. Between 2001 and 2017, the number of college graduates entering the civil service dropped 15 percent. Government workers now have an average age of 45.6 in 2017, one of the oldest in the labor force. That is all to say: the civil service had a recruitment problem even before threats intensified against many workers. Now, that problem is set to get worse. According to ProPublica, from March to August 2020, more than 20 local election administrators stepped down, “citing burnout, stress or health concerns.” This number only grew in the months directly preceding and following the election, as intimidation efforts targeting election administrators became increasingly common.
Health officials, also the targets of widespread harassment this year, experienced a similar trend. Since the start of the pandemic, more than 70 public health officers across the country have resigned, were fired, or plan to leave their posts. These departures have largely been the result of political pressure from local and federal elected officials, combined with threats to their safety and livelihoods by members of the public. For Karen Koenemann, a public health director in Colorado, the breaking point came shortly after her car was vandalized by a citizen angry about the county’s pandemic restrictions. The rapid attrition of health officials like Koenemann has directly harmed America’s ability to confront the pandemic. Resignations and departures leave remaining officers with outsized workloads that have become almost impossible to manage. If partisanship and hostility towards government workers does not abate, a reduction in new applicants to replace those who have left will continue to diminish the efficacy of our government and undermine our reputation on both a national and international level.
Yet by far the most important implication of increased hostility towards government administrators has been a marked decline in Americans’ belief in the legitimacy of democracy itself. In a well-functioning democracy, administrative processes are separate from the political decision-making process. If someone disagrees with government policy, they are free to advocate for change by protesting, boycotting, voting, speaking out, and participating in the democratic process in other ways. But when people choose instead to intimidate and threaten individual administrators with the goal of changing their actions, they bypass the democratic system entirely, holding their own beliefs over the collective will of the people and forcibly impeding the execution of our nation’s laws. This violence is tragically pointless: more often than not, these local administrators have little control over the policies they carry out as part of their daily jobs.
Nevertheless, President Donald Trump continued to foment and indeed participate in efforts to intimidate and threaten government workers throughout 2020 and the start of 2021. In April, the President applauded citizens attempting to violently overthrow state officials during a state-wide lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19. As the armed insurrectionists entered Michigan’s State Capitol building in a scene eerily similar to the recent attack on the U.S. Capitol, Trump tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN.” In early January, the President himself called and threatened Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Secretary of State, in an effort to change the state’s election results. Partly as a result of this pattern of behavior, a significant segment of the electorate came to believe that the democratic process is only legitimate when you like its results. This belief was reflected in each and every menacing phone call and online threat targeting local administrators throughout the country during the spring, summer, and fall. It should not surprise anyone that by winter, this same belief would result in violence at the highest level of government.
In isolation, each act of aggression against local officials puts innocent men and women and their families in danger. In the aggregate, these actions lay the groundwork for larger-scale anti-democratic violence, and are just as destructive to our democracy as any attack on Washington. Going forward, pro-democracy groups must carefully monitor the frequency and nature of violence targeting local officials, if we wish to prevent future insurrections and the further degradation of American democracy.
Title Image Credit: Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images.