By Liz Weatherly and Amanda Ackerman Springmann
This fall, we went to a fight and an election campaign broke out.
Under normal circumstances, Falls Church City residents are known for both our civility and our smarts. We are neighborly and fair-minded, well-read and well-adjusted. We are not swayed by cheap rhetoric or manufactured crises, because we know how to look behind the curtain and judge issues (and people) on their merits. We value honest, substantive and meaningful interaction.
But all that seems to have gone out the window in the race to Election Day 2015. Instead of debating issues and assessing platforms, it seems a certain subset of our fellow citizens have devoted themselves, online, in print, and in person, to lowering the bar for political speech just as fast and as far as they can. Instead of reasoned discussion and careful examination of the facts there are whisper campaigns, name-calling and feverish character assassination, all ginned up by folks who seem to have confused political campaigning with Washington’s other favorite fall team sport. (Hint: There’s a good reason ballots are not printed in burgundy and gold.)
What particularly grieves us is that the ugliest of this ugly behavior seems to have been reserved for candidates who are women and/or new players in City politics. Their clothing is judged to be too revealing, while at the same time their accessories are mocked as too demure. They are disparaged as “mommy candidates,” with never a mention that all the men in the race have children too. We complain about the need for diversity among our City leaders, but then revert to middle school taunting whenever anyone steps up. Falls Church should encourage passionate, committed citizens to get involved in making our hometown a better place. But instead we seem to be demonstrating that no good deed goes unpunished. Welcome to City politics! Come on in, the water’s shark-infested.
Deplorable too is the anonymous anger and vitriol that has replaced rational debate and thoughtful discussion, especially in the online comments on this paper’s website, and on other sites that cover Falls Church politics. And the bile is not just directed at candidates. Folks who have likely shared the same lawn at a Cherry Hill concert or waved to one another during the Memorial Day parade are now posting nasty accusations about each other, or making sweeping generalizations about the types of neighbors they deem acceptable. Mind you, we are not arguing against differences of opinion. Reasonable people can – and should – disagree; it keeps us all honest and mindful of the diversity in opinion and experience here in our City. But it is not reasonable to attack candidates and each other simply for holding views (or backgrounds) that differ from what you prefer. It is not reasonable to refuse to let facts get in the way of a good rumor. And it is not reasonable to heckle from behind an anonymous screen name.
What message does this send to our current leadership – that we tolerate campaigning like this? Does this entice the next generation of public servants to roll up their sleeves and get involved, knowing that they will be dragged down in the mud? Do new residents (and downsizing established ones) feel welcome, knowing that some of their neighbors have openly questioned whether condo- and apartment-dwellers are truly “full-fledged citizens” of our City? And how do we explain to our children and grandchildren why our normally intelligent civic discourse has degenerated from New England town hall to barroom brawl? Our fellow Little Citizens are bigger than this. It’s time for everyone to change the tone by speaking out against the ugly behavior that has taken over this election.
There is a “Falls Church way,” and this is not it. No matter how big it gets, our City will always be a small town – a place where memories are long, and degrees of separation are small. We are all bound up in each other’s lives, for better or for worse. And so we urge all our neighbors, candidates and supporters alike, to think beyond Election Day. Don’t just do or say whatever gets you to November 3; have a plan for November 4 and beyond. Choose to associate yourselves (and your all-important votes) with people who have chosen to make a positive difference in the life of our City, instead of those who are only committed to scaring listeners and scoring points. Remember that when this never-ending season finally ends, we will still have to encounter each other at the park, the bus stop, the grocery store, or the frozen yogurt shop, not to mention at City Hall. When we do, let’s be ready to come together so we can work together.
We all deserve that much.