North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis collapsed this week while participating in a foot race in Washington, D.C. He is expected to make a speedy recovery, and while health concerns can linger in the minds of voters come re-election time, chances are good that this episode will become a forgotten footnote in Tillis’ career.
As reports of the collapse came online, activists in North Carolina were divided in their reactions. Some, including this author, thought it best to offer well wishes for a speedy recovery, with the intention of restoring some amount of decency and decorum to political and personal discourse.
Others were not so charitable, pointing out the irony of a health scare while the nation is embroiled in a heated debate over the direction of health care coverage. Many found it fitting that Tillis would now have a uniquely personal perspective on health. Others remarked bitterly that it must be nice to have the Congressional health plan. Some even went so far as to suggest that since, in their opinion, Tillis had no regard for their lives, they had no sympathy for him, and indeed, Tillis has a record of antipathy toward certain populations.
What is the obligation of members of the general public toward public officials? In fact, nothing. We elect them, they work for us, and for most people, it ends there. We literally pay their salaries, and they can lose their jobs at our discretion. This sentiment is often thrown out with considerable conviction, when in fact we all know that politicians wield enormous power, and that incumbents are exceedingly hard to replace.
Politicians are by nature power-seeking individuals, a fact that was not lost on the founders. After spending years throwing off a tyrant, they made sure to create a form of government in which there were careful checks on each center of power. Americans, going back to the days of the pioneers, have always had a streak of distrust when it comes to power, a sentiment canonized in the Second Amendment. On the other hand, we put images of revered leaders on money, and iconic landmarks such as Mount Rushmore and the Washington monument are part of childhood acculturation.
The ascension of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980 marked a significant turning point in the modern conception of government. According to his ideology, government itself was the biggest threat against free enterprise, innovation, and even freedom. In this formulation, then, politicians, the media, and especially bureaucrats were the enemy. Reagan himself was famously and decidedly not of the usual political ruling class. The following decades saw a cascade of non-politicians seek and win political office, from pro-wrestler turned Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura to The Terminator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
As globalization and automation destabilized the old economic order, so too have political norms and traditional allegiances been toppled. Labor unions, which once had enormous sway in elections, lost much of their power. At the same time, the internet, talk radio, cable TV, and new networks like Fox splintered and radicalized the kinds of news and information consumed by the public. Whole generations have grown up ignorant of the political process and with a baked-in hostility toward politicians.
Political outsiders, particularly from the business class, are nothing new in politics. Texas billionaire Ross Perot famously compared governance to looking under the hood of a car to see what’s wrong, and his strong showing is widely credited for fundamentally altering the 1992 election. But never have we seen a politician with the bravado, bluster, and absolute contempt for political and social norms as Donald Trump. He routinely belittled leaders as stupid, and dismissed political correctness in a scorched earth campaign of insults against marginalized groups, opponents, and anyone else who crossed his path.
All of which brings us back to Tillis. Is Tillis personally worthy of our sympathy? That depends on parsing out some of his more objectionable actions to determine his intent. Disagreement in politics can occur within a party, as witnessed by the bitter divisions among North Carolina Democrats over the recent repeal and replace of HB 2. When we disagree across parties, it is easy to cross the line from philosophical disagreement and into disputes that are much more personal and even existential.
Tillis has taken some disgraceful actions relative to race relations. In 2007, when he was in the North Carolina state legislature, he voted against a bill that offered an apology for a horrific instance of racial violence in Wilmington in 1898, saying that not all whites had participated in the riots. That kind of hair-splitting is tone deaf at best, racist at worst. In a 2014 interview during his campaign for U.S. Senate, he said that the traditional population of the state was not growing compared to minority populations, a statement many took as a racist dog whistle, since there have been African slaves in this state almost since its inception as a colony. He has also tended to vilify the poor, particularly those who receive public assistance, saying in 2011 that a GOP goal should be to get so-called worthy aid recipients to look down on people who are just looking for a handout. Just how are African-Americans supposed to feel about about a man who blocks a symbolic apology? Does that cross the line from disagreement into what could be perceived as a direct attack against an entire racial group?
Another group that has taken issue with Tillis is the LGBT community. In 2014, when Supreme Court decisions made gay marriage legal in North Carolina, Tillis went on record decrying “liberal activist” judges and vowed to fight on in court, despite the recommendation of then-state attorney general Roy Cooper to abide by the decision. Tillis opposed an amendment to an anti-trafficking bill before the Senate that would have helped runaway gay and trans youth, enraging activists. On the other hand, in 2015 Tillis voted to extend benefits’ coverage to same-sex couples. Tillis is clearly never going to be the darling of the LGBT community, but the last example shows that he may be more moderate than some Republicans on this issue, which is admittedly not saying much.
In January, Tillis wrote a widely circulated editorial in which he acknowledged that, even though Trump and the GOP swept into power in November, that did not constitute a mandate. He pledged to work across the aisle, and specifically mentioned immigration as an issue. It is easy to read this gesture cynically of course, and I challenged Tillis to live up to his promises shortly thereafter. However, it was only a few years ago that a few enlightened Republican Senators signalled their willingness to find solutions to the seemingly intractable problem of immigration and other issues such as sentencing reforms.
I am the last person to give someone like Tillis a free pass. For the past six months, I have helped author daily calls to action that are often directed squarely at him. I have lost count of how many times I have called his various offices. I have demanded that he oppose Steve Bannon, Betsy DeVos, Jeff Sessions, Steve Mnuchin, Ben Carson, and the rest of the crooks, cranks, and cronies. I have railed about health care, net neutrality, Russia ties, and every other bill or issue you have ever heard about. However hateful his decisions, however malignant his unexplored racial biases may be, I do not think that he is evil. And even if I did, my conscience would dictate to me to love each and every one of my fellow human beings.
I want to make a huge disclaimer: I am a 50-year-old, cis-gender white male. Indeed, I have much more in common with Thom Tillis than I would care to admit. Our politics are radically different, but our privilege is similar. Tillis is rabidly “pro-life”; a female friend remarked to me the other day that she is deeply disturbed by Tillis’ desire to “climb up in” her uterus. Denying funding to trans and gay youth will undoubtedly cause suffering and death. So should I be surprised when an online commenter remarked that, in her opinion, Tillis wants her dead, and that to her he is less than human? How would I feel if I had a pre-existing condition?
Thom Tillis is a powerful politician who represents a way of thinking to which I do not ascribe. But given the wave of nauseating hate and intolerance upon which his party rose to power, I find it incumbent upon myself to wish him personally well. If we, on our side, descend to the level of personal attacks and vitriol used by Donald Trump, we become that which we abhor. My rule is this: only say online what you would say to a person’s face. If you have so much animosity for Tillis that you think he is sub-human–understandable for some–than by all means share your opinion. I just think it feels better to take the high road. Undecided and disgusted voters are a huge segment of the electorate, and they are watching the behavior of all partisans closely. And remember, there are plenty worse than Thom Tillis lurking to take his place.