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American Democracy Depends on Empathy, State Senator Says
Monday, September 12, 2022


Want to fight for American democracy? Fight bullying with empathy and kindness, State Sen. Michelle Stennett said this weekend.

Stennett told about 200 people attending the eighth annual Conversations with Exceptional Women at the Argyros Theatre in Ketchum that the bullying that has become so commonplace across Idaho and the nation comes from anger and fear and can only be countered with kindness and empathy.

We’re seeing a backlash because we’re not a white majority society anymore and those who have had privilege for 246 years don’t want to lose it, she said.

Give it back to them when someone is confrontative and spouting misinformation, she said: “Tell them, ‘We need to be civil’…  Then walk away. We have to stand up for ourselves.”

Stennett, Minority Leader in the Idaho Senate, spoke on “Challenges to American Democracy,” along with Fiona Hill, a national security advisor who testified at former President Trump’s first impeachment hearings, and Gina Bennett, a retired CIA counterterrorism specialist who was the first to warn the nation of the growing danger of Osama bin Ladin.

The panel was convened to address such things as an authoritarian movement that is on the rise,  election deniers who are running for office and the efforts of politicians to escape accountability,  said David Adler, who founded the conference as part of his Alturas Institute. The Alturas Institute is a nonpartisan organization that promotes the Constitution, civic education, gender equality and equal protection of the law.

Stennett noted that Idaho is the most Republican state in the nation and what happens nationally has usually already happened here.

As a legislator, she said, she’s watched 30 percent of her colleagues bully the political process, bolstered by conservative think tanks outside the state that are drafting legislation and manipulating elections.

“Seventy percent of the people are not represented, but they’re not participating, either,” she said. “The more we remain quiet, the more emboldened they become.”

Stennett noted that the legislature had a 50 percent turnover this year, meaning there will be no one with institutional memory when the next legislature convenes.

Many of the newcomers truly want to blow it up, she added: “They don’t want government and on our watch we need to prevent that from happening. Benjamin Franklin said of the Constitution that we had created the best document we could for democracy but that we have to fight for it every day.”

Stennett lamented people’s short attention span today, noting that Americans were willing to march against the Vietnam War for 10 years.

“One of the reasons we have so much empathy for Ukraine is that those people have fiber. They’re not willing to back down. If we want to fight for democracy, it’s going to painful, it’s going to be long…”


Caroline Heldman, a former FOX News analyst, said that studies show that what happens on the ground comes from the nation’s leaders. The emergence of new technology allows this to happen.

“If you want to change this, you need to regulate social media like they do public utilities,” said Heldman, a political science profess in the department of Critical Theory and Social Justice at Occidental College. “We’re seeing incredible rates of acceptance of violence. One in 20 Republicans now believe violence is necessary to solve political disputes.”

Heldman added that you can tell what kind of society you have by looking at where the money goes—and the bulk of this nation’s money is spent on military.

“At the core of the problems today is a lack of empathy. We’ve got to figure out what the story is that’s being told. Today it’s one of a persecution complex. It’s not coming from a rational place; it’s immersed in social misinformation.”

Heldman added that the ascendency of Barack Obama to the presidency allowed the fear of those concerned with white privilege to manifest itself. But, she said, “This shift tells us we’ve made progress. If we were not having a shift in the societal order, we would not be seeing such a violent reaction.”

Gina Bennett, now an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies, noted that the United States is still trying to deal with colonial imprints on the creation of its government, not unlike other countries. Most countries end up being more stable after they’ve had a civil war and have come back together, she added.

“Maybe we need to look for soft secession opportunities for states, communities,” she said, adding that small secessions might show how to prevent larger rifts.

Bennett added that she would like to see elected officials held accountable to the people who did not elect them.

“You are responsible not just to the people who voted for you but everyone. That requires that you engage with the other constituency,” she added.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams stressed the need to teach civics in schools, and Stennett agreed.

“I think people have been given a lot of hooey about what their rights truly are. When someone comes up to me and says, ‘This is my constitutional, God-given right…’ I show them a copy of the Constitution and tell them, ‘Show me where that is… and it’s not in the Bible, either.’

Rather than demand more changes, we need to demand the rights we have and follow the rule of law,” she added.

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