Washington Post Metro columnist Robert McCartney relates the cautionary tale of Fairfax (Va.) School Board member Liz Bradsher. The school board, like others across the nation, was required to make some tough choices with its resources scarce and stretched to the breaking point. The costs of renovating a high-achieving elementary school in the Fairfax County countryside didn’t pass an objective, cost-benefit analysis, so the board voted to close it. Bradsher, whose district includes Clifton, the neighborhood served by the school, was expected to vigorously oppose the move. But after studying the costs and enrollment forecasts, she reluctantly concluded that it made more sense to shutter the facility so the county could spend scarce renovation dollars where they would benefit more children.
She did what was best for the Fairfax community as a whole, which, as an elected official, is her duty. But rather than appreciating the courage it took to agree to close a beloved institution in her district for the greater good, she is being attacked. Anonymous postings on a popular local website have spread false rumors that she has a drinking problem and that her marriage is on the rocks. She is receiving threatening letters, and obscene e-mails.
McCartney interviewed Clifton resident Erin Tengesdal, a local cafe owner and graduate of the elementary school who authored one of the most vicious of the signed e-mails Bradsher has received. Tengesdal’s message attached the description “Liz Bradsher Hater” to her name. “I’m just a constituent who felt I’d been wronged and who voiced that dissatisfaction with my right under freedom of speech,” she said, in response to his question about why she would be so abusive.
Abuse is not “voicing satisfaction.” Using insults and invective is a form of punishment, and expressing hate does not produce more responsive and responsible government. Public officials should not be punished and hated for doing the right thing, or trying to do the right thing. They should be held accountable and shamed when they act out of expediency, weakness, incompetence, selfishness, self-interest or cowardice.
A responsible public should seek more elected officials like Liz Bradsher; instead, it drives them away. Bradsher has decided not to subject herself to more abuse for making hard choices responsibly and objectively; she is not running for re-election. Her place will probably be taken by someone who would have fought for the elementary school, even though budget realities made it an irresponsible use of scarce funds.
In a rational and efficient democracy, the public would elect representatives with character and courage, and in times of crisis trust them to make hard choices equitably with one primary objective: the best interests, long and short term, of the county, city, state or nation. It would admire and reward leaders who are willing to risk unpopularity to do what is necessary, and when decisions were made that require personal sacrifices in the quest for a better future for all, the public would accept those choices as part of the cost of being part of a mutually dependent society. In contrast, our culture is sinking in an attitude that rejects sacrifice, and embraces the toxic concept that whatever is ours is inherently more important that anything belonging to someone else.
The treatment of Liz Bradsher in Fairfax County is just a fractal of what we see in the tantrums being thrown by Social Security and Medicare recipients, who know these programs are unsustainable yet who lean on cowardly leaders to behave as if they are not. It is mirrored in the public union protests in Wisconsin, in the refusal of Tea Party members to accept the need for increased taxes, in protests over closing military bases or ending farm subsidies. If the public will not reward trustworthy and responsible leaders for making the hard choices, then it will only have weak and cowardly leaders who will make the popular choices, or refuse to make choices at all.
The fact that we are irresponsible is the reason we have irresponsible leaders. The solution is not more invective. The solution is changing our own selfish attitudes, and electing leaders who can be trusted, not to do what we want, but to do what we need.