We teach our children lessons about leading with empathy and intelligence, about taking the high road, about playing fair. And we warn them that bullies never win in the end. Be the bigger person. Follow the right and righteous path, and you shall be rewarded.
But the examples being set on very public stages tell an entirely different story, one that says accumulating power is the goal, with no guardrails on how you acquire and keep it. Rules are for suckers, unless you’re the one who makes them.
Take voting rights. If the goal of our democracy is to let all eligible Americans vote and for every one of those votes to count, the Freedom to Vote Act would have had a clear glide path to passage. But when, as promised by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the compromise bill massaged by holdout West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin was brought to the floor Wednesday, not for a vote but for a mere discussion, Republicans offered no help.
How far Democrats will go to pass rules that creep toward restoring parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, obliterated by the Supreme Court, is uncertain. But for anyone interested in a true representative form of government in the United States, something is needed.
That’s not the view of Senate Republicans, led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who understands the ruthless power game without regard to the example it sets for the next generations. From Washington, his party sees advantage in election antics in states such as Texas, where GOP-heavy leadership is greedily grabbing the two House seats delivered by an increasing and increasingly diverse electorate with one hand, and gerrymandering away minority representation with the other.
After protests, the Republicans who control the Texas Legislature and the redistricting process have restored to Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee’s new district many of the Black Houston residents she currently represents. But every battle for every vote will be a tough one. Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro, who represents the San Antonio area, said the new map was “designed to discriminate, particularly against Latinos, who are the driving force behind the state’s population growth.”
As the census counts a U.S. population growing less white, it’s an existential threat to those who see resources and representation as zero-sum. Unwilling to share leadership with people who were once locked out by law, states are changing the rules of democracy, and that is not a game.
Texas is not the outlier, but the leader on this kind of obstinance, passing laws to loosen gun rules and unleash poll watchers on any voter deemed suspicious, turning them into the bullies (perhaps armed) that we warn our children about. It’s no longer “Love thy neighbors,” but snitch on them for bounty if we think they’re even thinking about getting an abortion. Those new laws won’t, of course, end abortion for those with the means to travel to another state; it will just drive desperate girls and women to seek desperate solutions.
Texas is just one place where you can find adults yelling at and sometimes threatening schoolteachers and administrators over what is not critical race theory (and I defy any of the objectors to come up with a coherent definition). It seems what they really fear are lessons that tell the truth about America, a country with lofty promises it has not always lived up to. If history includes racial truths that lead to understanding and progress, these folks want none of it.
In Texas, a fearful administrator got in trouble for encouraging books promoting “opposing views” of the Holocaust, just to satisfy a new restrictive law. After all, this is a state where enslaved men, women and children were characterized as “workers” in a textbook. When teachers tape over library shelves, it’s not exactly the message we want to send the inquiring minds of young people. Many are already certain adults aren’t giving them the whole truth. Turns out they’re right.
A question of values
Lest you think I’m picking on Texas, in North Carolina, my current home base, Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson has made and doubled down on remarks calling lessons about people who are gay or transgender “filth.” Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper rebuked him, saying Robinson “does not speak for North Carolina.” The N.C. Values Coalition, however, has Robinson’s back: “We stand with our Lt. Governor Mark Robinson and his protection of North Carolina families,” which is an interesting interpretation of values.
I may not be the most consistent churchgoer, especially since COVID-19 made virtual sermons way too tempting. But Robinson’s incendiary words give license to wallow in the basest prejudices rather than prepare young people to face, with curiosity and grace, a world they may be struggling to understand and navigate.
Never speak ill of the dead? Or at least wait awhile? Remembrances of the late Colin Powell did not sidestep the controversial parts of the soldier and statesman’s legacy, particularly his speech to the United Nations making the case for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It’s something the former Republican said he regretted doing, a foreign concept to today’s “never apologize, never explain” crew. But every obituary included context, presenting his pioneering life and career, with his mentorship of colleagues and young people an important part of that legacy.
But his death only provided an opportunity for hosts on Fox News to use it as Exhibit Z in their anti-vaccine crusade, ignoring that Powell had cancer, was immunocompromised and was 84 years old, complicating the reaction to COVID-19 that caused his death.
When Donald Trump, leader of the GOP, put out a vile statement that was all about him, I expected Republicans to loudly condemn his disrespect toward a onetime GOP icon.
Nah, I didn’t.
Actions are speaking so much louder than words, and where that may lead should worry everyone, since children, even very young ones, can spot hypocrisy a mile away.
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.