On the surface of it, everything that happened during the now-infamous confrontation between the owner of the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, was completely fine under free-market principles.
The owner of a restaurant did not wish to serve Sanders due to her political views — and since there is no law preventing discrimination based on political views, Sanders was asked to leave. Sanders, as is her right, took to Twitter to let people know that the Red Hen does not welcome people who think like her, and I'm sure the free market will respond accordingly.
In fact, if I were Sanders, I would be glad that the owner of this restaurant asked me to leave. If someone thinks that my political beliefs make me some kind of monster, then I want them to tell me about it right up front, before I make the mistake of accidentally giving them some of my hard-earned money. And I certainly wouldn't want someone who thought that way to handle food I was about to eat.
On the other side of the coin, if I owned a restaurant, there are certainly people I would refuse to serve for their political beliefs. If either Louis Farrakhan or Richard Spencer walked into a restaurant that I owned, I would politely but firmly tell them that I did not want their business and invite them to eat somewhere else — and I would take whatever nonviolent blowback their followers dished out as a badge of honor (including a bunch of 1-star Yelp reviews, if it came to that).
On the other hand, while there isn't much to object to from a free-market perspective about what happened, there's a sense in which what happened to Sanders is one of the most troubling things that has happened recently, simply in terms of what it says about the health of our Republic.
See, Sanders is not Richard Spencer or Louis Farrakhan. She's not a fringe political character. She's a spokeswoman for the duly-elected president of the United States. Tens of millions of people voted for her boss. And what the Red Hen incident illustrates is that there are many people in this country who view every one of those people in exactly the same way as most people view Spencer or Farrakhan, and that's alarming for the long-term health of this country.
Of course, what the weekend illustrated is that Sanders' experience is about to become the new normal in this country. Department of Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen and senior White House adviser Stephen Miller were also asked to leave restaurants because of their positions in the Trump administration — to nearly universal cheers on the left. And of course, rabble-rousing Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters responded to the news by encouraging the president's political opponents to take the public shunning up a notch.
Even lower-level administration officials aren't exempt. ABC Radio reported Monday that an anonymous DHS staffer found a decapitated animal carcass on their porch over the weekend, which is just the latest in a string of threats that have been made against DHS officials, whether they are responsible for setting administration policy on immigration or not.
This isn't the historical norm in this country, which has always had a strong sense of national pride and identity even in the face of bitter partisan disagreement. Democrats and Republicans have always disagreed strongly on issues, but at the end of the day, there was an unspoken agreement that whatever our political differences, all but the most odious of political actors are entitled to at least be treated with courtesy in public.
Of course, we should not pretend that liberals rose up and decided to shun Trump officials out of absolutely nowhere. The election of Trump itself was intended to be a middle finger to the roughly half of the country who voted for Obama and his policies, and in a sense you can say that they received that intended message and are responding in kind. Of course, the people who voted to nominate Trump in lieu of more "mild-mannered" Republican candidates would respond that such a message was necessary in response to Obama's radical attempt to remake America and disrespect all the people who clung bitterly to their guns and religion. And on and on the grievances go.
Who ultimately started this thing is not the point. The point is that, apart from a small political fringe, there was a shared national consensus that holding a different political view from someone else was not a good reason to shun someone from public places. Now, half the country thinks it about the other half.
We have reached a critical point where it seems like a majority of this country does not see their political opponents as not merely misguided or wrong, but rather evil and contemptible. The level of rancor is probably the worst it has been since at least the mid-1960s, when the country looked over the brink into chaos and then somehow pulled itself back — or perhaps since the 1860s, when the country looked over the brink and then jumped off into the abyss.
A country cannot long survive as a unified whole when half its population views the other half as literal enemies, as opposed to fellow patriots who disagree about shared objectives.
It's too soon to know which path the country will ultimately take. But in the absence of some unifying event that allows us to discover some basic goodwill for our political opponents, some dark days are ahead indeed.
We haven't yet started picking up our guns and firing at each other en masse, but it feels like we are headed that way, and no one seems particularly interested in stopping it.