How the end of COVID-19 could affect civility in Massachusetts

BOSTON — A 2019 national survey found that 68% of Americans identified incivility as a “major problem” in the United States. Those who conducted the study could not have foreseen how a global pandemic would make the problem even worse.

As COVID-19 precautions are lifted nationwide, the United States continues to face an ongoing hardening of public and political discourse. Massachusetts finds itself both emulating and deviating from national trends.

Erin O’Brien, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said that while the Bay State stands out from other states when it comes to general collegiality, there are “real exceptions.”

In particular, O’Brien said the “racist attacks” leveled at Mayor Michelle Wu by vaccination mandate protesters, and the impersonation of “Trump’s speech” by Republican gubernatorial candidate Geoff Diehl are signs that national concerns are being felt in Massachusetts.

“Our political discourse was tested and somewhat shot down in Massachusetts,” O’Brien said, “but I think we’ve weathered much worse trends in other states.”

O’Brien said there is a “small vocal minority” whose strong opposition to statewide mask mandates and vaccination requirements has resulted in personal attacks on lawmakers. However, she also said the lack of viral videos coming out of the state showing people refusing to wear masks or creating scenes in public places is a good sign.

“I’m not saying it’s not happening,” O’Brien said referring to the viral outbursts. “But I’m sure it’s not happening at the same level as other states.”

State Rep. Peter Durant, R-Spencer, said during the pandemic some people have become “a little meaner” and more easily upset. And even with the weight of the pandemic seemingly passed, Durant said incivility in Massachusetts may remain the same.

“I think most people have had enough of this pandemic for a while,” he said. “So when you implement or double up on your mask mandates, your (vaccine) mandates, then I think that just increases people’s level of irritation.”

Durant compared the frustration level of people in Massachusetts and across the country to a genie that can’t be put back in its bottle. He said tensions have escalated and people feel their voices are not being heard.

Regarding the protests at Wu’s home and the order she recently filed that would prevent early morning and late evening targeted picketing, Durant said people should be able to voice their concerns without going to such extremes. . He also said Wu’s proposed order is not the right way to deal with frustrated voters.

“What you’ve done now is basically tell people, ‘Hey, I don’t want to be bothered,'” Durant said. “That’s the completely wrong message to have.”

While stories of incivility between lawmakers and their constituents have grown in Massachusetts, Beacon Hill lawmakers still operate with a level of collegiality, according to state Rep. Michael Kushmerek, D-Fitchburg.

Kushmerek, who took office in 2021 and recently announced his intention to run for a second term, said the courtesy he experienced during his tenure was a “really positive start” from what is seen. in Washington, DC.

Occasionally, however, rhetoric from the national level seeps into the State House. And when it does, Kushmerek said he and his colleagues on both sides of the aisle collectively take notice and try to steer clear of the textbooks found in DC.

“I think we’re diligent enough to take a deep breath afterwards,” Kushmerek said. “Overall, all of us colleagues (try saying), ‘Let’s get away from that rhetoric, and be very careful not to go down that road.'”

This year’s gubernatorial race, however, could bring that rhetoric to the fore. In February, former Trump campaign adviser Corey Lewandowski officially joined Diehl’s campaign for governor.

State Representative Michael Soter, R-Bellingham, said it was “unfortunate” that some members of his party were still focused on the past, rather than advancing the Commonwealth.

“Geoff can run his campaign and bring in whoever he wants. It’s not going to dictate who our party is,” Soter said.

Bellingham’s rep said the Massachusetts GOP has a choice: It can decide to move on and tackle issues like job insecurity and student loans, or it can continue to bind to the past.

“We have something to offer, and I want people to know that in this state,” Soter said. “Republicans in Massachusetts are good conservative Republicans — people who want to get us going.”

Looking ahead, O’Brien said Massachusetts residents have the power to promote civility despite recent trends. In attempting to respectfully interact with lawmakers via social media or direct communication, she said Massachusetts residents simply need to behave with civility in order to prove that the “loudest voices” are not representative of the nation. whole state.

“Overall, anything anyone can do to show how unrepresentative these people are is helpful,” O’Brien said. “How people operationalize it is up to them.”

O’Brien said it’s still unclear what the end of the pandemic means for public discourse. She pointed to the state’s tradition of civility, its high education rate and its ability to function well with a Republican governor in a typically Democratic state as indicators that Massachusetts could move further away from the incivility seen on the national political scene.

However, O’Brien said she believes the Massachusetts GOP party apparatus has “moved in Trump’s direction.” This shift in rhetoric could be designed to help Republicans achieve greater polling success in the Bay state, but its effects remain to be seen.

“A mark of moderate republicanism only really brought the governor’s office,” O’Brien said. “They were like, ‘Let’s shake it up. “”

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