It can be a matter of law, whether there’s trespass, vandalism or worse, but that tends to deflect from the more fundamental question: Is going after politicians and public employees at home fair game?
It’s happened to Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, and NYPD Police Commissioner Dermot Shea.
It obviously has consequences for “innocent” bystanders, the neighbors, spouses and children. Assuming that no laws are broken, per se, and that the conduct is an exercise of constitutionally protected protest, the question remains whether it crosses a line, a norm, of going after a public official in his or her personal capacity, at home, involving the family, the children.
It was unsurprising that activists thought nothing of crossing the line from attacking a person acting in an official capacity to going after them personally. Protesters have made eating out a problem for a few years now, which was the subject of some criticism and debate at the time. But going to a person’s home, involving his children, raises the volume to 11.
To activists, the cause is righteous and anything done in furtherance of the cause is justified. Sure, the analogy is simplistic and obviously flawed, but the gravamen of the gripe against police is grounded in fact and backed up by far too many examples. Yet, the NYPD exists for a reason, possesses authority for a reason, and acts upon that authority for a reason. That doesn’t mean it’s not in desperate need of reform, but that it’s not comparable as a public entity created by and for the public to individual citizens. If this needs futher explanation here, you’re probably at the wrong place.
But it’s not just activists for whom the line between public and private, between the official person and his family, no longer matters. This isn’t a question of law, even though it could be given the circumstances, but rather a social norm, that home, families, are “off limits.”
There are logical reasons for the existence of the line, that these are innocent parties forced into the mix, that this is a game that can, and will, be played both ways, whether it’s activists of the right or left going after the politicians who fail to do as they demand, and could ironically be the same politicians from time to time. Obviously, it can’t be “good” when it’s your tribe and bad when it’s the other tribe, if you’re both doing the same thing to exert the same influence, albeit for opposite political purposes.
And then there’s question of how this influences elected officials and government servants. Will people of good will want to run for office, to serve the public, if they know that their homes and families will come under attack if they fail to do what some group demands? You can’t please everyone, and oftentimes the smart answer, the best policy, is unlikely to appeal to the simplistic and delusional, even when they were (at least at one time) on your team.
A few of the new group of “progressive prosecutors,” Larry Krasner and Rachel Rollins, adored when they ran for office, are now the target of progressive outrage for some of their actions in office. They aren’t going far enough to please the ever-leftward edge of their supporters, and the minute they fall short of their team’s demands, they become heretics, pariahs to the cause. Would they have taken the risk to run had they known how swiftly they would go from heroes to scoundrels? Would anyone without the desperate need for ego-stroking ever run for office?
Yet, a surprising number of people who aren’t exactly activists or crazies no longer see why the line should necessarily matter.
I also have mixed feelings. I’d like to think that in a polite society, we leave families alone. But by the same token, it’s a lot easier to ignore your constituents from your top-floor office than it is when they call you out in front of your family and your neighbors.
Is this merely a matter of living in a “polite society”? Maybe, as this is a social norm. But if one can’t “reach” politicians through their office, are they immune from being embarrassed, if not harassed, by being within the “sacred” place of their home? After all, it can be a very effective means of making your point to someone who otherwise wouldn’t give you the time of day.
Counterpoint: Most people will work much harder to avoid being embarrassed in front of family/neighbors than strangers.
Then again, there is, and always has been, a mechanism for constituents to address elected officials who fail to perform the way they want. Vote. If you’re of the view they shouldn’t be re-elected, persuade your neighbors and friends to vote them out of office. Write letters to the editor, op-eds, blog posts, about why they shouldn’t be in office.
The problem is that their “constituents” might not agree. One aspect that seems to elude people is maybe they aren’t the average constituent and that the majority of constituents don’t share their view. Nobody likes being in the minority, especially when they are right, and so the failure of the mechanism by which elected officials’ failings are addressed is unavailing. What good is an election if it doesn’t produce the outcome you, clearly right in your own mind but still in the minority, desire?
But even if every constituent believes himself entitled to the time and attention of every elected official to consider his grievances, is attempting to “embarrass” him in front of his neighbors, wife and children a principled way to get him to change his position? In all likelihood, the official won’t be embarrassed at all, even if that’s what protesters imagine would happen since they have a tendency to see the world only from their own perspective. At best, it would be closer to intimidating. At worst, it would be annoy, which usually backfires badly.
What it would not do is argue the merits of one’s position and, through the use of facts and logic, persuade people in public service to see the worth of your perspective. Of course, this isn’t an option for everyone, and might not work. Does that mean it’s fair to fight for what one believes in using any means necessary? Does the other side’s failure to adhere to the social norms you want justify your failure to adhere to social norms as well? Has “polite society” outlived its usefulness?