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Why the Red Hen incident so troubles us as Americans

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The United States of America is creeping toward creating a more imperfect union, one dominated by the power of the online mob that is threatening to disassemble more than 200 years of learning.

It was in “Federalist 10” that James Madison, the father of the Constitution, discussed the human tendency to divide into factions, which he defined as groups of people “who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens” and to the community. He warned how the zeal for certain government policies, for passionate leaders and for different religions could lead us to a society inflamed “with mutual animosities.”

{mosads}Welcome to America 2018. Madison’s solution then was to tame the forces of the moment through a republic as opposed to a pure democracy. This is done by electing the people’s representatives from across the country who would be more sensible and objective. They would face periodic elections, but were to be freed from the easily inflamed mobs that would be quick to trample the rights of others.

But in the modern age, as I document in “Microtrends Squared,” people are increasingly divided into factions, and whether it is through their news channels or their Twitter feeds, the ability to whip up crowds quickly and with slanted information has never been easier, or more dangerous. Forget about the Russians dividing us, we have to worry about us Americans doing the job of tearing the nation apart.

Our politics itself has turned so negative that today’s political consultants often do little more than comb through opposition research reports for some infraction from 20 years ago that they can exploit through negative ads, which dominate our political scene. It has proven all too easy to inflame factions than to lead with new ideas.

Protest is, of course, an important part of our society, and we have had huge protests throughout the years that have made a difference. During the Vietnam War, when the lives of 58,000 Americans were lost, we had protests joined by millions that eventually brought down President Lyndon Johnson. Yet, society itself remained civil as we changed course.

Despite having been entirely peaceful, the incident at the Red Hen restaurant is unsettling because its goes to the core of how we treat those with whom we disagree in this republic. To be shamed with your family in the middle of a meal because of your service to the country and for your political views means that there is no activity safe for those who work for or, by extension, who just voted for or supported the opposing party. The Red Hen incident crossed the line from just words to actions by ejecting White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her family.

Yes, President Trump instituted an immigration policy that was wrong. In many ways, the system worked and caused him to reverse a highly unpopular policy within a week. Yet, in the process, inflammatory language comparing the administration to Adolf Hitler and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to Nazis undermined those who sincerely opposed the policy as unjust.

Social media unfortunately makes it all too easy now to inflame factions and to organize mobs online, and even call on them to converge in person in a speed that has never been possible before. If this keeps up, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) will achieve her goal of harassing Cabinet members wherever they shop, dine and eat. Her remarkable attack on civility has little support among the public, and it was encouraging to see some major Democratic political leaders like Sen. Charles Schumer (R-N.Y.) reject it. He called harassing Cabinet members “un-American.” Even the Washington Post editorial page opposed her prescription.

In the latest Harvard CAPS/Harris poll, 72 percent say it is wrong to eject someone from a restaurant for their political views. Only two jurisdictions in the United States explicitly make it illegal to discriminate in restaurants on the basis of political affiliation. One of them is the District of Columbia, but the Red Hen owner is likely safe from legal process in Virginia. Left unchecked, all this could easily spiral out of control. Why stop at Cabinet members? Imagine restaurants and hotels with “Democrats Not Served Here” signs. Today, that would be perfectly legal in most places.

Another growing problem is the stigmatization of people at work for their political views. In a Harvard CAPS/Harris poll last year, 40 percent said they were afraid to express their true political views with family or at work because of potential retaliation. While the First Amendment prevents Congress from penalizing people for what they say, it does not prevent your employer from firing you for your politics. Once again, a raging online mob can get almost any employee fired in short order.

We have to fix this before it gets out of hand, and not just with editorials, but with legislation. We need to extend the First Amendment to the workplace so that no one can be fired for their politics. The failure to enact this basic protection makes the First Amendment meaningless, except for those who can afford to lose their jobs, are students, retired, or who only say what is popular in their part of town.

Then we need legislation to make discrimination at restaurants for political views illegal so that no one is humiliated when they take their family out to eat. Public accommodations need to be just as open in Northern Virginia to Trump supporters as coffee shops in West Virginia are to Clinton supporters. Maybe they don’t have to bake custom cakes, but they have to serve them without discrimination.

We need to require higher standards of verification for negative ads and encourage politicians to run more on what they are for rather than just what they are against. There is no obvious cure for the ability of social media to divide us beyond at least weeding out fake accounts and creating accountability for political ads. But much shaming and bullying online is done proudly to gain approval from our factions. As many as 80 percent in many polls find Trump’s tweets and personal attacks divisive at a time our leaders need to bring us together.

This is not just about a lack of civility. It is about the core values behind our Constitution and the American spirit that welcomes peaceful political diversity at the center of creating a “more perfect union,” even when we grapple with the toughest and most emotional of issues or with leaders and parties that exploit rather than heal our divisions. We are a dynamic society living materially better than at any time in history. Yet, if we do not observe our own red lines, we will go down the very path of division and retribution that Madison warned us about.

Mark Penn is a managing partner of the Stagwell Group, a private equity firm specializing in marketing services companies, as well as chairman of the Harris Poll and author of “Microtrends Squared.” He served as pollster and adviser to President Clinton from 1995 to 2000, including during Clinton’s impeachment. You can follow him on Twitter @Mark_Penn.

Tags Americans Charles Schumer Congress Constitution Democracy Donald Trump Government history Maxine Waters Politics United States White House

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