On a Senator's SSN, front-lawn protests, and the abuse of personal discomfort to achieve political ends
In Federalist Paper No. 51, "Publius" (either Alexander Hamilton or James Madison) wrote that "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition." It is a seminal argument about the nature of power: Checks and balances among competing power centers, deriving powers that are rivalrous to one another, serve as a more reliable insurance policy against overreach than hopes, prayers, and goodwill. The logic of those checks and balances embedded in the Constitution is a testament to Madison's efforts to finely tune the machine.
■ But nobody said anything about how to counter trolling. And that's a problem with which we moderns must deal.
■ The odious practice of using physical intimidation and online harassment to trouble the personal lives of elected officials has gotten well out of hand. Protesters have turned the front lawns of police chiefs and mayors into rally sites. Security details have had to raise their defenses at governors' residences over the hazards created by crowds. Houseboats and bathroom stalls and airport terminals have all turned into potentially unsafe spaces.
■ The intimidation isn't limited to physical presence. An online tabloid declares "We Have Kyrsten Sinema's Social Security Number" and hints at how it could be found by others and abused. Mayors are targeted with online threats. Nor should it be forgotten that a major Presidential candidate gave out a rival's phone number and suggested that people "try it" in 2015.
■ Things have been worse at times in the past. Charles Sumner was beaten with a cane on the floor of the Senate. Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy were assassinated. Terrorist campaigns plagued the Reconstruction era.
■ Our distinctly modern problem is that as the country's population grows ever larger and our technological tools become ever more sophisticated, the guardrails that keep the distance between differences of opinion and matters of personal jeopardy become ever more fragile. And if we expect our elected officials to give up ever more -- of their personal safety, their privacy, their online security, or merely their own access to quiet -- then it becomes distinctly possible that good people will simply walk away, or never look at public service in the first place.
■ Gresham's Law in economics states that bad money chases out good. If we aren't sufficiently consistent and clear about rejecting bad behavior in the political sphere, no matter how much we dislike a politician's behavior or how justified we believe our own causes to be, then we risk imposing a Gresham's Law over politics -- in which bad people will drive out the good. Ambition will forever be present, but ambition can be decent and honorable -- or it can be indecent and dishonorable.
■ We've already come much too close to the edge of crippling political violence in recent memory. Disagreement on merits is utterly wholesome. But tactics intended to substitute personal discomfort as a means of pressure against others ought to be designated clearly out of bounds.