Amid the political vitriol, public officials see reasons for optimism
In an age of deep political anger and hostility in the United States, politicians and public officials have seen positive signs that the nation can heal itself through this tumultuous time.
Kent County Health Officer Adam London and former U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer discussed the vitriol they faced as public leaders and how citizens can counter it during their keynote discussion on political violence at the Hauenstein Center’s Progressive/Conservative Summit on April 19.
London discussed what it was like to field menacing phone calls, emails and rhetoric from the public as masking and vaccine mandates were instituted to combat the pandemic. London said over the pandemic’s three years, about 100 of the 250 positions in the Kent County Health Department turned over.
“I heard from staff over the past three years that the joy had gone from their work, and that was one of the factors that led to that turnover,” London said.
But London sees encouraging signs from his new staff. Last week, London said he met with his nearly 100 new staff members.
“The good news is I just met with the new staff,” London said. “I asked them, ‘Do you know what kind of polarization is out there?’ And they said, ‘That’s why we’re here. We’re here because it matters to us. This is meaningful, purposeful work.’”
Meijer echoed London’s comments about facing the intense fury and backlash.
“I've known colleagues who had to pull their kids out of school after a vote or had to, in some cases, have them live with family members,” Meijer said. “Materialized violence is relatively rare. The threats can be very constant.”
Meijer also acknowledged the amount of threats he received while a member of the U.S. House of Representatives paled to the number his female colleagues received.
“Female politicians get easily 10x, 50x the type of harassment and vitriol that male politicians get. That is a non-partisan component. A female colleague said she got 200 threats this week.”
During a question-and-answer session, an audience member asked how society could encourage younger generations to engage in the political process in a healthy manner. London cited a simple gesture that meant a great deal to him and his staff.
“Everyone's heard the stories that Peter and I have of death threats and violence and all of that,” London said. “I don’t think people hear about the good part of it, the encouraging part of it.
“I’ve got one of many Ziploc bags with thank you notes or pictures that kids painted that say ‘thank you.’ This kind of stuff really makes a difference and keeps us inspired.”
Meijer said he found inspiration in seeing grassroots efforts arising with young people.
“If you have young people who look around and see participating and getting involved with the government as a means of improving the community, then I can imagine few things more inspiring than that,” Meijer said.