Rage enters the mainstream of US local politics

Watch “Perilous Politics: America’s Dangerous Divide,” Sunday, Oct. 30 at 8 p.m. ET on CNN.com and the CNN OTT and mobile apps, or when available on CNN.


Americans are used to voters being angry with Congress and the president, but there is a new strain of anger directed at local officials and national coordination in campaigns to recall or intimidate county superintendents and school board members.

By unapologetically using threats of violence to influence local officials, it represents a more confrontational local politics, and may drive local officials – the people who run cities, towns and regions – away from the public service profession.

CNN’s Kyung Lah, a national reporter based in Los Angeles, has found outrage in reporting across the country. He’s made a new documentary, “Perilous Politics: America’s Dangerous Divide,” that explores how anger and confrontation seep into America’s main street.

I spoke with Lah about what he and his documentary producers discovered. Our interview is below.

WOLF: What is behind this documentary? What made you start reporting on it, and what did you find?

LAH: As a reporter in the field, I was seeing the kind of rage that tends to be directed at the federal level, the national level, the local level. – Anger about how Congress works or that the federal government is coming to take your guns.

What we’re seeing now are the wheels of democracy most closely aligned with your average person – your school, your city and your local elections – all of which become the focus of extreme and extreme anger.

Hostility that you would normally see reserved for someone above is now in your backyard. That was really the driving force behind it.

WOLF: You go from Shasta County, California, to Loudoun County, Virginia, to an election office in Colorado. Is there something that connects these very different places together?

LAH: The people we meet are the invisible workers of democracy. The little cogs of democracy that make America work are the people you get permission to host an event, open your business, vote in your local election.

And they are also faceless. These are not people who joined government because they want to be in a nationally played commercial or seek the Oval Office. They joined the government because they want to make their community work.

And what we are seeing is with the same fury – this ugliness at the national level against these mouths of democracy – entering the little mouths of democracy. It is having a significant impact how our communities work.

WOLF: Many of these threats you document were inspired by Covid-19 – business restrictions or school restrictions. Have they dissipated? the end of the pandemic?

LAH: No, they have changed. For example, in Loudoun County, it was first the masks, and then it became the CRT, this big CRT bucket that is fed by the conservative media.

(CRT is an acronym critical race theorybecause many on the right are afraid to go to school.)

And then it became transgender rights.

I’m talking about Loudoun, but this is happening all over the nation.

We stay in these communities in Shasta, Nevada County, Madison, Detroit. It’s happening everywhere.

I hope our audience understands that even though we’ve stopped in these communities, it’s a problem that’s everywhere in American society today.

WOLF: One of the things I found most interesting is that you talk to people who were unapologetic about threatening violence. Do they see this as a legitimate form of political pressure?

LAH: They do As Carlos told me: this honest anger has its place in civil society.

(Carlos Zapata It appears in Lahr’s documentary. It took an effort to remember He is a member and founder of the Shasta County, California Board of Supervisors (In Red, White & Blueprint, which encourages confrontational politics in other parts of the country.)

LAH: I think it’s too simplistic to say that the rudeness we see on social media is now spreading in other ways. But I think that’s a big part of it.

We have become so hostile to each other and that seems to move the needle on social media, that seems to move the needle on the mass media. They believe it will change things at the local level.

WOLF: A lot of this seems to be about fear. If you can’t beat someone at the ballot box or in an election, scare them away, with no interest in running for office. How are the targeted officials doing with this kind of rhetoric?

LAH: They are leaving. I think that is very clear.

Just look at how many people have withdrawn from election work. How are we going to run the business of American democracy – the faceless side of American democracy – if you don’t have the people to do it?

(Related report: “1 in 5 local election officials say they could quit before 2024 presidential election, new report says.”)

LAH: How are you going to get your small business open if you don’t have enough people willing to take a beating at the town hall? It’s not sexy. It’s not super glamorous, this job, but it’s absolutely critical.

And people don’t want to do it anymore. In our documentary we talked to people who don’t want to do it anymore because it’s not worth it. The money is not there for them, it is clear. And then not feeling safe to go to the grocery store or being verbally abused at a public meeting. Why would anyone want to do that?

WOLF: Since reporting on the documentary, I’ve seen you on the 2022 campaign trail. Do you see all of this playing out in the campaign as well?

LAH: I think they are locked up. They feed each other.

I’m covering national politics right now, the races that will determine the levers of power in Congress. But the same hostility we see here on the campaign trail is the same hostility you’re seeing at school board meetings.

And that’s scary. It’s not about compromising or trying to win people over to your point of view, or winning an argument. It’s about shaming, intimidating, intimidating, and most of all, winning. It’s not a commitment.

WOLF: My impression is that it is still a minority of Americans who are using these types of tactics or who feel they are. Do you share that sentiment? Or do you think it’s a growing movement?

LAH: I think it’s a growing movement. Because it’s working.

Do I think that is the fabric of America? I do not have. But I think we have to deal with it because it’s doing so badly in places where we shouldn’t be dealing with it. Teachers should not feel this way. School board members shouldn’t feel that way. And the children where we are growing up in an environment they think these things work.

WOLF: What else should we know?

LAH: There is another thing. We talked to ordinary people. No one is famous, and my fear about this is that we are very attracted to celebrity and glitz. I hope people pay attention to their neighbors and the less glamorous aspects of our society because they deserve to have a voice. And that’s why we did it.

WOLF: I can tell you care about this. That makes it shine.

LAH: I don’t know why you got into journalism, but I got into journalism because I wanted to give a voice to people like my parents, immigrants who didn’t know English, who had no power in society. That’s the power of media, and that’s why I do this. And so I feel very passionate about this documentary, and I hope people see it.