In the month of August, mass shootings in El Paso, Dayton, and now West Texas left not only death and devastation, but also heartbreak and outrage in their wake.
Before all the victims were tended to, we politicized tragedies in a crude attempt to score political points. On social media, we rewarded Americans for lunging at each other’s throats with likes and retweets. We applauded each other for impugning false motives and dismissed “thoughts and prayers” from those with whom we politically disagree. In exercises of shameful straw-manning, we equated the values of the average Republican or Democrat with the political motivations of deranged sociopaths. We prioritized political victory over all else — even our fellow Americans’ well-being.
How did we get here, to an America that doesn’t extend to our fellow citizens a helping hand — but one that throws clenched fists and hopes to beat our political opponents into submission? More importantly, how do we fix it?
We must make a concerted effort to de-escalate our politics if America truly wants to heal. This is easy enough in the abstract, but the crassness and pettiness of our politics makes the task more difficult on a concrete level.
Our effort to de-escalate ought to begin with allotting time for “thoughts and prayers” and taking those prayers seriously. This contemplation helps remind us of the importance of what is in our fellow Americans’ hearts and minds. Their “thoughts and prayers” are important, too. Only then will we be on the path of constructive healing that brings the clear-headedness needed to identify our nation’s problems and propose possible solutions.
These tragedies ought to rightly call for Americans to share in their outrage and grief, and to use that commonality to unify in word and deed. But today, our French Revolutionary-like zeal to “do something” means we dive head-first into a toxic vat of reactionary outrage and panicked politics.
American governance is equal parts code and civil society — and for far too long, we’ve relied too heavily on the former and neglected our responsibilities to the latter. We’ve decried the institutions that made us a moral and religious people — namely, family and religion. In our moral depravity, we’ve managed to simultaneously denounce our Constitution and the American way of life that undergirds it — just as John Adams once predicted.
As our civil society has increasingly fallen out of style, we’ve tried to fill that void with more and more government.
Over-reliance on big government gave way to the idea that government could cure any and all of society’s ills, and created a political rationale I call the “big government binary.” If solving every problem requires more government action, and you’re against government action, then you must be for the status quo. In the case of gun violence, you’re either in favor of solving the problem — thus more government restrictions — or for the status quo, which means you’re for mass shootings and more massacred Americans.
When the big government binary labels those who offer alternate solutions as proponents of evil, Americans can forget how to coexist in the public square. Let this way of thinking creep into our political discourse over time — all the more as more horrific events become ripe for political exploitation — and it’s no surprise we dismiss “thoughts and prayers” when they don’t lead to our preferred political outcomes.
When our politics leads to inevitable government gridlock, American civil society is more often than not more than capable of stitching the tatters of our social fabric back together. Combating the scourge of violence in our schools, churches, and meeting places means Americans must purposefully re-engage with civil society. Undertakings by civil society to confront our nation’s problems, unlike a giant government program, come in many different forms. They include the high school student who raises awareness for mental health; the veteran who joins his local NRA to teach people how to safely store and operate their firearms; and the stay-at-home mom who volunteers to work at her church’s food pantry. Each is laudable in his or her own right, and we can either choose to respect each other’s efforts to strengthen civil society or we can shame them and continue to see our unifying fabric wither away into the ether.
This won’t be easy. It’s an intergenerational project that requires a resurgence of personal responsibility and public duty at a time when few will be incentivized to do so. But, if America fails to get it right this time — if we fail to make time to process our emotions, de-escalate our politics, and strengthen our civil society — our rancorous politics will only become more polarized. The brokenness that has pitted Americans against one another and given rise to a resurgence of white supremacist terror and extreme left-wing radicalization will only continue to rear its violent, ugly head.