Americans are used to voters being angry at Congress and the president, but there’s a new vein of anger directed at local officials and a nationwide coordination in campaigns to recall or intimidate county supervisors and school board members.
With the unapologetic use of threats of violence to influence local officials, it signals a more confrontational local politics, and it may be driving local officials – the people who make cities, towns and counties run – from the profession of civil service.
CNN’s Kyung Lah, a national reporter based in Los Angeles, has encountered the anger in her reporting from around the country. She has put together a new documentary, “Perilous Politics: America’s Dangerous Divide,” that looks at how anger and confrontation are infiltrating main street America.
I talked to Lah about what she and her documentary producers found. Our conversation is below.
Noticing a new rage
WOLF: What’s behind this documentary? What led you to start reporting this out, and what did you find?
LAH: As a field reporter, I was seeing the type of rage at the local level that has usually been aimed at the federal level, the national level – anger over how Congress is working, or that the federal government is coming to take your guns.
Now what we’re seeing is the wheels of democracy that are most intimately aligned with your average person – your school, your city and your local election – all of that becoming the focus of extremism and extreme anger.
The hostility that you would see normally reserved for somebody up on high is now in your backyard. That’s really what was the driving force behind it.
This is all over the country
WOLF: You go from Shasta County, California, to Loudoun County, Virginia, to an election office in Colorado. Is there something that ties these very different places together?
LAH: The people we meet are the invisible workers of democracy. The small wheels of democracy that make America function are the people you get your permit from to host an event, to open your business in your community, to vote in your city council election.
And they’re also faceless. These are not people who got into government because they want to be in a commercial that’s played nationally or seeking the Oval Office. They got into government because they want to make their community function.
And what we’re seeing is with the same rage – that ugliness in the national level against those spokes of democracy – jamming in the small spokes of democracy. It is having a significant impact on how our communities function.
An evolving tactic set off by Covid-19 restrictions
WOLF: A lot of these threats that you document were inspired by Covid-19 – either business restrictions or school restrictions. Have they dissipated with the end of the pandemic?
LAH: No, they’ve changed. For example, in Loudoun County, first it was masks, and then it became CRT, this large bucket item of CRT fueled by conservative media.
(CRT is the acronym for critical race theory, which many on the right fear is infiltrating schools.)
And then it became transgender rights.
I’m talking about Loudoun, but this is happening nationwide.
We stop in these communities in Shasta, in Nevada County, in Madison, in Detroit. It’s happening everywhere.
I hope our viewers walk away with this understanding that while we’ve stopped in these communities, it is a problem that is ubiquitous in American society right now.
Viewing violent threats as a legitimate form of pressure
WOLF: One of the things I found most interesting is that you talk to people who were unapologetic about threatening violence. Do they see this as a legitimate form of political pressure?
LAH: They do. How was it that Carlos put it to me – that righteous anger has a place in civil society.
(Carlos Zapata is featured in Lah’s documentary. He led an effort to recall Board of Supervisors members in Shasta County, California, and is the founder of Red, White & Blueprint, which encourages confrontational politics elsewhere in the country.)
LAH: I think it’s far too simplistic to say that the coarseness we see on social media is now spilling out in other ways. But I think that is a large part of it.
We’ve become so hostile to one another and that seems to move the needle on social media, that seems to move the needle on mass media. They think that’s going to change things at the local level.
People are leaving local government
WOLF: A lot of this seems to be about intimidation. If you can’t beat someone at the ballot box or in an election, make them afraid, make them uninterested in running for office. How are the targeted office holders dealing with this kind of rhetoric?
LAH: They’re leaving. I think that that is very clear.
Just take a look at how many people have retired from election work. How are we going to conduct the business of American democracy – the unglamorous side of American democracy – if you don’t have people to do it?
LAH: How are you going to get your small business to open its doors if you don’t have enough people willing to take the beating at the city council meeting? It’s not sexy. It’s not super glamorous, this work, but it is absolutely critical.
And people don’t want to do it anymore. We talked to people in our documentary who don’t want to do it anymore because it’s not worth it. The money is not there for them, clearly. And then to not feel that you are safe to go to the grocery store, or to have to be verbally abused in a public meeting. Why does anybody want to do that?
Anger at local officials is in lockstep with anger about elections
WOLF: Since reporting the documentary, I’ve seen you on the 2022 campaign trail. Are you seeing all of this play out on the campaign trail as well?
LAH: I think they are in lockstep. They feed off one another.
I’m covering national politics right now – the races that will determine the levers of power in Congress. But the same hostility that we see out here on the campaign trail is the same hostility you’re seeing at school board meetings.
And that’s terrifying. It’s not about trying to compromise or to win over people to your viewpoint, or to win an argument. It’s about shaming, scaring, terrifying, and most importantly, winning. It’s not compromise.
More people resort to this type of confrontation because it’s working for them
WOLF: It’s my impression that this is still a very small minority of Americans who are using these kinds of tactics or who even feel this way. Do you share that feeling? Or do you think this is a growing movement?
LAH: I think it’s a growing movement. Because it’s working.
Do I think that this is the fabric of America? I do not. But I think we have got to address this because it’s getting really bad in places that we shouldn’t have to deal with this. Teachers shouldn’t have to feel this way. School board members should not have to feel this way. And we’re raising kids in an environment where they think this stuff works.
These are the people who deserve a voice
WOLF: What else should we know?
LAH: There’s one other thing. These are ordinary people who we talked to. There’s no one famous, and my fear about this is that we’re so drawn to celebrity and the sparkle. I just hope people pay attention to their neighbors and to the unglamorous parts of our society, because they’re the ones who deserve to have a voice. And so that’s why we did it.
WOLF: I can tell you care about this. That shines through.
LAH: I don’t know why you got into journalism, but I got into journalism because I wanted to give voice to people like my parents, who were immigrants who didn’t speak any English, who didn’t have any power in society. That’s the power of the media, and that’s why I’m doing this. And so I feel very passionately about this documentary, and I do hope people watch.