Democracy doesn’t work unless citizens make it work. This not only means showing up to vote but also helping operate and administer the key institutions in a democratic society — such as schools, polling places, and local health agencies.
Yet over the course of the past year and a half, the Americans who do this critical work — mostly anonymous individuals motivated by a sense of civic duty — have been subject to a wave of violent threats. Consider the following examples:
These are not one-off incidents. Surveys have found that 17 percent of America’s local election officials and nearly 12 percent of its public health workforce have been threatened due to their jobs during the 2020 election cycle and Covid-19 pandemic. While none of the threats against public servants appear to have led to deadly violence yet, the volume has gotten severe enough that the Justice Department created two separate initiatives to help combat threats against election administrators and education workers (board members, teachers, administrators, and other school staff).
“It’s not even accurate to say [threatening election workers] was rare prior to 2020. It was so rare as to be virtually nonexistent,” said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research. “This is beyond anything that we’ve ever seen.”
The new wave of threats is cresting on one side of the partisan divide. Generally, the individuals responsible seem to believe former President Donald Trump’s fraudulent claims about the 2020 election, oppose Covid-19 vaccines and masks, and claim schools are indoctrinating their kids with “critical race theory.”
This most likely reflects the way extreme polarization and Trumpian populism have convinced a segment of the population that their political opponents are not mere rivals but existential threats to American society. Political scientists, who have termed the spread of this us-versus-them mindset “pernicious polarization,” find that it has undermined the foundations of democracy in countries such as Hungary, Venezuela, and Turkey.
Threats against public servants show how such democratic erosion manifests in practice. Already, experts are warning of a retention crisis in public institutions, with election workers, school officials, and public health leaders so overwhelmed that they’re likelier to quit rather than continue to subject themselves and their families to abuse.
If a staffing crisis does emerge in these areas, it could do real damage to America’s core institutions. A democratic society needs civic-minded members to step up. In today’s America, the vicious political environment is dissuading people from participating in public life — a loss that could make us more vulnerable to the next pandemic, further damage our educational systems, and even contribute to a democratic crisis in the 2024 elections.
The growing evidence of a surge in threats
Anecdotal media coverage and viral stories about threats against public officials certainly contribute to the impression of a surge. But is the trend real?
Unfortunately, deeper analysis suggests that it is — and that the people on the receiving end are genuinely frightened.
Start with election workers: For the past several months, Reuters reporters Linda So and Jason Szep have interviewed dozens of election administration officials across the country, compiled a database of more than 800 threats against them, and even unmasked some of the individuals responsible for the harassment. Their conclusion is unequivocal: The spate of threats is real, and a direct outgrowth of Trump’s campaign to undermine the 2020 election.
“The harassers expressed beliefs similar to those voiced by rioters who stormed the US Capitol on January 6, trying to block Democrat Joe Biden’s certification as president,” So and Szep write. “Nearly all of the threateners saw the country deteriorating into a war between good and evil — ‘patriots’ against ‘communists.’ They echoed extremist ideas popularized by QAnon, a collective of baseless conspiracy theories that often cast Trump as a savior figure and Democrats as villains. Some said they were preparing for civil war.”
So and Szep’s reporting is supported by the results of an April survey conducted by the Benenson Strategy Group for the Brennan Center for Justice, which found that 32 percent of election officials had felt unsafe while on the job, with 18 percent saying they were “somewhat” or “very” concerned about their life being threatened during the 2020 cycle. High-level election officials, such as state secretaries of state, might be used to some level of harassment — but the scale and intensity of the threats is novel, reaching even typically anonymous election administrators and poll workers.
“It is definitely unprecedented,” said Rachel Orey, a policy analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center think tank. “What we’ve been seeing this last year and a half [is] a mass campaign across the country with all kinds of officials receiving threats.”
Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt, a Republican responsible for election oversight, became a lightning rod when Trump singled him out by name in a tweet as someone who was “being used big time by the Fake News Media” as a cover for election fraud. He received a wave of threats, often with anti-Semitic overtones. His wife got emails with threats such as “ALBERT RINO SCHMIDT WILL BE FATALLY SHOT” and “HEADS ON SPIKES. TREASONOUS SCHMIDTS.” The family left their home for safety reasons after the election; Schmidt has announced he will not run for reelection in 2023.
The Covid-19 pandemic did the same thing for public health workers that the 2020 election did for election officials like Schmidt: put them in the crosshairs of a radicalized public as targets for citizens hostile to mask mandates and vaccination campaigns.
In a CDC survey of over 26,000 public health workers released in July, a little under 24 percent of respondents reported “feeling bullied, threatened, or harassed” as a result of their work. Public health workers, who in surveys prior to the pandemic were found to have high levels of job satisfaction, were at least 10 percent more likely to have symptoms of PTSD than frontline health care workers like doctors and nurses, likely owing in no small part to the high levels of mistreatment.
“We had a feeling that public health workers were under [an] immense amount of stress,” Carol Rao, a CDC epidemiologist who worked on the survey, told Stateline’s Michael Ollove. “The amount of threats, harassment and bullying, that was the surprise.” (Stateline is the nonprofit news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts.)
Sara Cody, the chief health officer in California’s Santa Clara County, received a series of escalating threats by mail in 2020. The notes, which reportedly included references to the extreme-right boogaloo movement, warned that “you will pay a heavy price for your stupidity bitch” and that “you are done … it’s over … say goodbye.” Police arrested Alan Viarengo, then a math teacher at a community college in Gilroy, California, in August 2020; he was charged with stalking and threatening a public official, both felonies.
It’s a similar story with school board members and teachers.
There’s a rising sense among scholars, reporters who cover K-12 education, and school administrators themselves that something new and scary is happening. School board meetings are becoming more contentious, at times even violent, in a way they haven’t in decades. These conflicts stem primarily from parents angry about “critical race theory” and school masking policies, as well as measures to accommodate trans students, such as gender-neutral bathrooms.
“Controversies at school board meetings are definitely not new. But my sense is that threats of violence at school board meetings are up markedly,” said Joseph Kahne, a professor of education policy at UC Riverside.
There isn’t much systematic data on this rash of threats, seemingly because they’re so new. “I suspect the reason we don’t have data on such threats is that, in general, threats have been so rare and localized that the data is not aggregated,” Kahne told me. “But recently such threats have become far more common.”
In a recent article, the New York Times’s Alan Feuer documented a significant number of violent threats against school board members and teachers — including an incident near Sacramento, California, where “one entire school board had to flee its chamber after protesters accosted the members.”
“Since the spring, a steady tide of school board members across the country have nervously come forward with accounts of threats they have received from enraged local parents,” Feuer writes.
One high-profile example is Jennifer Jenkins, a speech-language pathologist and school board member in Brevard County, Florida. In a Washington Post op-ed, Jenkins detailed the wave of harassment she’s received, which escalated from contentious board meetings about critical race theory and masking in schools to threats against her family:
By April, protesters had begun to gather not just at board meetings but also in front of my house. A group of about 15 shouted “Pedophiles!” as my neighbors walked their dogs, pushing their infants in strollers. “We’re coming for you,” they yelled, mistaking friends standing on my porch for me and my husband. “We’re coming at you like a freight train! We are going to make you beg for mercy. If you thought January 6 was bad, wait until you see what we have for you!”
In a letter to President Joe Biden, the National School Boards Association (NSBA) likened some of these attacks to domestic terrorism, a claim that came under fire from Republicans and that the NSBA eventually withdrew. But professional associations for educators remain convinced that their members are being routinely menaced, often in grotesque and personal ways.
“When I speak to a lot of our system leaders, what they say is, ‘Dan, I can deal with the conflict,’” Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), said during a UCLA-hosted panel in early November. “But when my family is threatened, when my children in school are threatened, that’s a whole different story.”
Why is this happening?
The reporting and survey data on these threats against public servants consistently cite social media platforms as a source of the problem. Fifty-four percent of election workers in the Brennan survey, for instance, agreed that social media had made their jobs either “a lot” or “somewhat” more dangerous.
There are a few reasons to think social media might be facilitating the current wave of death threats.
One is the ease of communication that social media allows: When you can contact your local public health official on Twitter and Facebook, it’s logistically easier and less risky to deliver death threats than it may have been in the past.
Another is that it makes it easier for harassers to coordinate or follow an instigator’s lead: Jenkins, for example, received a renewed surge of threats after a Republican state lawmaker posted her cellphone number to his Facebook page.
Yet another is the spread of misinformation: Social media allows for the efficient dissemination of false narratives about election fraud, vaccination, and critical race theory in schools.
But social media alone can’t explain what’s happening now. These technologies have been widespread for well over a decade, but threats against civil servants seem to have spiked only in the past year or so. And social media can’t explain why these particular civil servants are being targeted: poll workers but not mail carriers, public health officials but not animal control officers, school board members but not DMV staff.
What ties these specific areas together is that they work in increasingly politicized sectors — ones that have been demonized primarily by one side of the political aisle.
Trump and his allies are, in essence, singlehandedly responsible for convincing many Americans that the 2020 election was stolen and that election administrators were part of a vast conspiracy to rig the vote against the former president. Fox News and Republican politicians have been among the driving forces behind misinformation about vaccines and anti-mask hysteria. And many of the organizations behind the revolt against critical race theory were founded by conservative activists and funded by right-wing dark-money groups.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with Republicans making political arguments or engaging in political activism. Some of their complaints are within bounds — there’s room to argue over, say, the inconsistency of public health officials’ Covid messaging, or school diversity exercises of dubious quality.
The problem is how these arguments have departed from the civil give-and-take of a pluralistic society and devolved into the demonization of public servants and the normalization of threats against them. In this narrative, government officials are no longer people merely implementing policies you disagree with — they are agents of darkness, existential threats to your freedom and to your families. And when people start thinking that, they start thinking about sending death threats.
This kind of rhetoric is best understood as an outgrowth of “pernicious polarization”: a phenomenon where “a society is split into mutually distrustful ‘Us vs. Them’ camps,” write Jennifer McCoy and Murat Somer, the political scientists who coined the term.
In polities defined by pernicious polarization, they find that “the identities and interests of the two camps are viewed as mutually exclusive and antagonistic.” These factions “attempt to label all individuals and groups in society as one or the other,” undermining the notion of neutral civic institutions respected by all political factions. Elite rhetoric plays a key role in making things worse: “Polarizing speech articulates or even suggests a grievance, stoking fears, anxieties, and resentments that then become expressed as hostility, bias, and eventually enmity,” McCoy and Somer write.
The US is a key example in McCoy and Somer’s paper. Under pernicious polarization, it makes sense that some Republicans are waging war on not only Democrats but also nonpartisan civil servants who help make democracy work.
The consequences for American politics could be serious
When Reuters’s So and Szep tracked down Ross Miller, a real estate investor in Georgia who had threatened to tar, feather, and execute the chief election official in Fulton County, he proudly acknowledged making the call.
“I left the message because I’m a patriot, and I’m sick and tired of what’s going on in this country,” Miller said, adding that he would keep sending threatening messages to election officials “until they do something” about what he sees as the fraudulent 2020 election.
So far, Miller’s actions haven’t gone beyond warnings. That appears to be the norm: The vast majority of people making these death threats against civil servants have not acted on them in any way.
But to the person on the receiving end, that’s little solace. Targets of death threats (and I speak as someone who’s been on the receiving end) can’t ever be sure they won’t be acted upon. The cumulative stress is crushing — and for civil servants with thankless tasks and heavy workloads, it could be enough to convince them they need to find a new line of work.
A recent nationwide survey of election officials conducted by the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College found that a quarter of respondents planned to retire before the 2024 presidential election. One of the top reasons cited was “the political environment” — meaning that the politicization of their jobs and attendant threats made them want out.
“That is part of what we think is going on here: that the focus on what was sort of more classically a clerical role is now becoming a more political role,” Paul Mason, a political scientist at Reed College, told CNN.
A New York Times investigation found that over 500 top health officials have left their jobs in the past 19 months, with the political climate a key reason why.
“Public health agencies have seen a staggering exodus of personnel, many exhausted and demoralized, in part because of abuse and threats. Dozens of departments reported that they had not staffed up at all, but actually lost employees,” the Times’s Mike Baker and Danielle Ivory write. “About 130 said they did not have enough people to do contact tracing, one of the most important tools for limiting the spread of a virus.”
In a TV interview, the AASA’s Domenech said he’s starting to see a wave of resignations among school superintendents, board members, and even teachers intimidated by threats against themselves and their families. In Virginia’s Loudon County, school board member Beth Barts resigned after a wave of threats made her fear for her daughter’s life.
“All it would take is one person believing it was their mission to do something about us all — and in five minutes, maybe even two minutes, we could be gone,” Barts told the Washington Post. “I couldn’t do it anymore.”
When a dedicated public servant quits, it means the person’s years of expertise in specialized and technical areas vanishes. One departure, or a handful, might be manageable. Mass resignations — and an environment that dissuades the civic-minded from stepping up to fill the vacancies — can be catastrophic to our institutions.
“Your best-case scenario is more problems at polling places and in voting,” the Center for Election Innovation & Research’s Becker told me. “The worst-case scenario is not just if we lose it, but what happens when that experience gets replaced by hackery … more people who believe that their job is to deliver their election to the candidate that they want to see win.”
Lori Tremmel Freeman, CEO of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, believes the retention crisis in public health is hampering the fight against the pandemic — and setting up the US for even worse responses to future ones.
“These health official departures come at a time when they are hardest to backfill, leaving leadership gaps in communities across the country,” Freeman wrote in a letter to the Justice Department. “They take with them institutional knowledge that we will not have as we continue to fight the pandemic or face the next crisis.”
When it comes to education, the fear among professional advocates such as Domenech is not only that we’ll lose dedicated professionals at a time when schools need them, but also that increasing partisanship will cause ideologues to take over key roles in education.
Redefining every sphere of life into an us-versus-them competition with existential stakes turns the cogs of democracy — the nonpartisan bureaucrats and local elected officials who administer key functions of the state — into partisan targets.
The result could well be the increasing decay of the American state’s ability to perform its basic functions. Running free and fair elections, protecting public health, educating children: These are essential functions of any democratic government. But our polarization crisis, accelerated by Trump and his allies, is making those tasks harder and harder to carry out.
They say the system is broken. But they’re the ones breaking it.
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