(Co-authored with Kyle Munson; reprinted from Iowa Capital Dispatch)
Perhaps you nod in agreement when politicians or pundits criticize some of the books available in your children’s school. Maybe you see vaccine mandates as an overreach of government power. You may think election security needs tightening. If so, you can vote, speak up at school board meetings, write a letter to the editor or grumble on social media. These are all legitimate channels for citizens in a democratic society who want to debate issues.
But it’s wrong to veer that debate into outright vilification of teachers and other public servants who are just trying to do their jobs—often persevering despite shrinking resources.
We now seem to live in a world where we’re told that teachers in local schools pursue a “sinister agenda” by providing “grooming materials” aimed at preparing our children for sexual exploitation. Vaccine mandates are “totalitarian” if not deadly. The 2020 presidential election was stolen, with Trump supporters urged to“fight like hell” and “take back” their country.
The reality, of course, is that teachers aren’t sinister. The vast majority are deeply engaged in the task of helping prepare children and young people for happy and productive lives. Public health workers aren’t fascists trying to poison us. Rather, they are doing their best to keep us healthy in the midst of a deadly global pandemic. Local election officials aren’t engaged in vast conspiracies to steal elections. They instead play a vital role in making our democracy work. And when rare cases of wrongdoing arise, existing systems of accountability kick in. If those prove inadequate, the answer is to advocate for thoughtful reform, not broad-brush attacks on public service itself.
The demonization of public servants is, of course, the product of cynical political calculation. Yet such attacks go well beyond ugly rhetoric. Elected officials have proposed to subject government workers to fines, lawsuits or arrest for doing their jobs. Across the country, as average Americans are taken in by conspiratorial thinking and false claims, health workers and election officials and even their families have become targets of vitriolic personal attacks and occasional violence.
The consequences hurt us all. Educators are leaving the profession. Election officials are quitting. Public health workers are resigning. Although the pandemic and other current realities have contributed to this wave of resignations, the personal and political attacks to which many public servants have been subjected have played an outsized role. As public institutions become shorn of the experienced professionals upon which their effectiveness depends, the ultimate victims of these trends, of course, are students, those in need of health care and democracy itself.
Politicians and pundits who use extreme rhetoric to are unlikely to pull back from the brink out of appeals to conscience. They will persist as long as such tactics work to bolster their political ambitions.
But there is the opportunity. We can speak up to defend the integrity of our friends, neighbors and family members in public service. We can learn to recognize when politicians and pundits cynically appeal to our deepest fears and basest emotions. And we can deny votes to candidates for office who engage in dangerous scapegoating. After all, we get the politics we deserve.
In the meantime, if you know a public servant, let them know you appreciate the work they do as champions of what civility remains.