Rioters clash with police during the insurrection in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.
Rioters clash with police as they try to force entry into the U.S. Capitol building in Washington during the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021. Credit: Lev Radin / Shutterstock
Jonathan L. Wharton

It was so unfortunate to have read this past weekend’s New York Times article,  “Lawmakers Confront a Rise in Threats and Intimidation, and Fear Worse,” about threats against our lawmakers in Congress. In fact, I re-read the piece and then found additional articles like this one from Vanity Fair. Considering how toxic our political environment has become, it shouldn’t be surprising. But it is upsetting since many lawmakers pride themselves on being accessible to the public.

As a former congressional aide for three U.S. House of Representatives on both sides of the political aisle, I understand the importance of lawmakers being connected to their constituents. It’s especially critical for House members because they are elected every two years and need to remain in touch with their district and the general public as much as possible.

I was often struck by how easily constituents could speak with my former lawmaker bosses as they walked around Capitol Hill by themselves or returned to their districts. An Illinois representative whom I worked for preferred going to congressional hearings by himself, as he would often mingle with fellow lawmakers, lobbyists, news media, and constituents. 

When I was a higher education lobbyist, it was pretty refreshing to also randomly bump into lawmakers on and off Capitol Hill. We could just easily discuss a policy issue within a few minutes instead of my having to track down specific lawmakers and their staff for meetings.

Even around New Haven I have bumped into U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro several times and she is as easy to chat with as anyone in the Elm City. This is the way it should be – elected officials who are accessible and easy to connect with.

Politics should be about making it easier to connect to get an issue addressed as soon as possible. Civility is key, but some Americans suggest violence and use threatening rhetoric instead of peacefully communicating their concerns to elected officials.

As a former aide and lobbyist, I fear that connecting with lawmakers will become a lost art because – as the New York Times pointed out – many politicians are now surrounded by security personnel. Generally speaking, congressional party leaders have had the option to request the protection of U.S. Capitol Police officers for their events.

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers are now faced with more threats, stalking, vandalism, and assaults. Last year, for example, the U.S. Capitol Police recorded over 9,600 threats, which is a ten-fold increase over recent years past. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine with whom I’ve worked directly on education policy, admitted that she wouldn’t be “surprised if a senator or House member were killed.” Consequently, she’s been on the receiving end of abusive phone calls, threats, and hateful messages. 

The Wall Street Journal also weighed in with an editorial stating that former President Donald Trump’s “death wish” rhetoric against Sen. Mitch McConnell has put “others at genuine risk of harm.”

Today’s hostile political climate has some senators using campaign funds to cover security expenses, especially during this midterm election season. For example, Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Georgia, has spent almost $900,000 and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has spent nearly $600,000 for protection.

Unfortunately, the January 6th insurrection serves as a lasting reminder to lawmakers and Americans about our nation’s political toxicity. And since 9/11, Capitol Hill has become a fortress of barred-off wings and closed streets. Protecting our members of congress must be a priority as well as a wake-up call for us to more effectively and peacefully communicate our differences, especially with elected officials.

Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D., is an associate professor of political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of or any of the author's other employers.