If you care way too much about Arkansas politics, then you may know that a Republican official said something he shouldn’t have said the other day.
The party’s 2nd Congressional District chairman, Johnny Rhoda, was quoted by U.S. News & World Report saying that if Hillary Clinton runs for president in 2016, “She’d probably get shot at the state line.” He went on to say, “Nobody has any affection for her. The majority don’t.”
The timing was especially bad, considering Clinton was scheduled to visit Little Rock Friday. A minor political firestorm erupted, and Rhoda resigned.
Rhoda is not an elected official, but he’s long been involved in Republican Party politics. The obvious question is, knowing what he knows, how could he have made such a comment to a national reporter?
And I suspect the answer is this: If he’s like a lot of us, he probably has said something like that before, or at least heard it in private.
Maybe not. It’s possible that Rhoda just made an unfortunate offhand comment out of the blue. Certainly, he did not mean to threaten or wish harm upon Clinton.
Let’s still use this episode to launch into a discussion of the bigger issue, which is that it’s becoming common for this kind of thing to be said in everyday and public conversation – more common than it used to be, it seems, but maybe I’m just imagining that. As memory serves, President Reagan used to fire off some real zingers at Democrats, but he described them as merely wrong, not evil. He reserved the truly tough rhetoric for the actual enemies who had missiles pointed at us and guns pointed at their own citizens.
Here’s how we live these days: in houses very similar to the ones around ours; in communities where most believe much the same way; in churches where most members are of the same background; in congressional districts drawn to ensure the like-minded vote together; in states that, with few exceptions, are either red or blue. We safely can consume only news media sources that assure us we must be correct because the other side is so very ill-intentioned. Even the ads on the websites we frequent are microtargeted to our likely political beliefs.
We have self-segregated in just about every way possible. Of course we believe “nobody has any affection” for politicians we don’t like. Nobody we discuss politics with ever does.
The result is that it becomes easy to turn human beings like Hillary Clinton into one-dimensional movie characters – heroes or villains.
Human beings are not movie characters. If Clinton were to visit most Republicans’ living rooms, I suspect everyone would soon find they had a lot more in common than they might have expected. She’s a lifelong Methodist, a daughter, a wife, a mother, and an expectant grandmother. Given her experiences, she’s probably an interesting conversationalist. The same would be true if President George W. Bush visited a family of Democrats, even though 35 percent of them once told a pollster that he had prior knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks.
I don’t know that publicly making light of shooting people makes it more likely that anyone actually will get shot. Political assassination attempts in America are rare and often motivated by insanity more than belief.
But while we’re not killing people, we are dehumanizing them, and that’s bad for many reasons. On a national political level, it makes it more difficult for our representative democracy to function. On a personal level, it makes us less happy people. If we spend three hours listening to a radio talk show host tell us how much he dislikes certain people, pretty soon we’ll dislike them, too. And then we’ll say as much, even to a member of the national media.
So the bigger issue is not what one party official said to a journalist. The bigger issue is that we’re not relating to each other as well as we might, and the way our society is structured, it’s becoming easier not to try.
On the bright side, we’re not shooting each other at the state line. We didn’t relate too well with each other in the mid-1800s or during the civil rights struggle, either.
But a little more affection for each other would make this a more perfect union. Or at least, a less imperfect one.
(Follow Steve Brawner on Twitter @stevebrawner)