5/10/22: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of one of the League of Women Voters forum moderators. We have corrected the spelling.

Shasta County candidate for superintendent of schools, Bryan Caples, released a social media graphic this week decrying his opponent, the incumbent, Judy Flores, for refusing to stand during the American pledge during a local political forum. 

The graphic, which was posted after the Monday night forum, shows Flores sitting during the pledge, accompanied by this caption: “Just like tonight, when presented with the opportunity to stand up for what’s right or to sit, Judy will choose to sit when it comes to your kids.”

A graphic shared on Facebook by Elect Caples for Shasta County Superintendent

In a Facebook caption accompanying the graphic, Caples wrote, in part: “Our team was appalled that my opponent chose to sit for the pledge of allegiance.” The post neglects to mention that while Flores initially stood up with her hand on her heart, she sat down again after a request to do so by the forum’s moderator, Susan Wilson. The pledge was conducted by Caples, who insisted on holding the ceremony during the League of Women’s candidate forum, despite repeated requests by the moderator not to do so.

After the events of Monday night, the American flag was removed from the meeting room prior to the Tuesday and Wednesday forums, but replacement flags carried in by forum attendees the following two days were again used for the pledge. During the second forum, moderator Wilson explained to the crowd that she had agreed to allow Bob Holsinger, challenger to the incumbent Shasta County Clerk of Elections Cathy Darling Allen, to use part of his three minutes of opening remarks to lead the pledge despite the League’s tradition of not doing so. 

The incidents appear to elevate the pledge as a litmus test of patriotism over respect for the long-held rules of a trusted non-partisan organization. That did not sit well with Shasta County resident Steve Woodrum, who has lived in the area since 1964 and spoke to Shasta Scout after attending Tuesday’s county clerk of elections candidate forum. Although he habitually pledges to the American flag at city and county meetings, Woodrum did not choose to do so at the forum.

“I was sitting in the front row,” Woodrum said, “But I did not stand, I did not take my hat off  and I did not recite the pledge.” Instead, Woodrum continued, “I said out loud, ‘This is a misuse of the pledge.’”

He called the incident an “ambush” and a “grandstanding event” that broke with well-established League rules and traditions saying it was “intended to make one candidate look better than the other by wrapping themselves in the flag.”

Devotion to one’s country shouldn’t be narrowed to a few specific metrics, Woodrum said. “There are a lot of ways to be patriotic,” he continued, “Serving in the military is almost always used as an example, but just being a law-abiding citizen is always an equally good expression of patriotism.”

Woodrum’s sentiments were echoed in statements made to Shasta Scout on Friday by Dru Menaker, the Chief Operating Officer of the national nonprofit organization PEN America, which was founded in 1922. Redefining patriotism in this way is a form of disinformation, Menaker said, which “unmoors political discourse” and “chills freedom of expression.” 

Destabilizing democracy through disinformation isn’t really about convincing people of certain facts, Menaker continued, but about making people doubt what they know and who they can believe, leading to uncertainty even in those who are not necessarily particularly partisan or particularly divided, but unsure.

“Sowing confusion and lack of surety about information and who might be the purveyor of truth is kind of the point, and what is so damaging,” Menaker explained. “You’re undermining the sources of trust-worthy reputable information that should be framing the civic engagement that we hope would be part of our democracy.”

But for some local political candidates it might not be whether something is true that matters, but how many people believe it. Asked about Dominion voting machines, which former President Trump’s legal team accused of flipping votes for Biden, Holsinger, who is running for clerk of elections, said that while he has looked into the machines in-depth and not found any concerns, he still supports replacing them.

Doing so would be an important step towards, “healing our county,” Holsinger said, because so many locals don’t trust the machines. That mistrust is connected to claims that President Joe Biden “stole” the election from Trump in a process that included fraudulent Dominion voting machines. Audits, investigations and court cases have debunked these claims but the oft repeated narrative linking the name “Dominion” to voting fraud has done its damage anyway. 

PEN America’s Menaker said that having to unwind conspiracy theories and misinformation in order to look at issues such as elections processes, derails civic community conversations and pushes people away from the democratic process. And that, she said, “ has all kinds of repercussions.”

Citing a recent PEN America survey on the impacts of misinformation on the role of the media in democracy, Menaker explained how intimidation leads to censorship in self-expression, whether among journalists or community members. “As a freedom of expression organization we think an engaged community is fundamental to democracy and we want open and informed discourse. Without that we’re not going to be able to survive as a democracy and without the values of democracy there will be no free expression,” she said, “as authoritarian governments have shown us over and over.”

One of the stalwart organizations that promote the informed discourse so important to democracy both nationally and in Shasta County has long been the League of Women Voters. Originally founded in 1920 to help women take a larger role in public affairs after they won the right to vote, the nonpartisan League works today to expand informed and active participation in government, increase understanding of major public policy issues and influence public policy through education and advocacy. They do not endorse or fund candidates. 

On the third night of forums last week, candidate Kevin Crye told the crowd he would be a “sell-out” to his country and those who fought and died for it if he did not take the opportunity to pledge the flag. After he did so, League forum moderator Jeannette Logue spoke briefly to the crowd reiterating that the League does not usually include the pledge as part of political forums and explaining the League’s understanding of what it means to support one’s country and community.

“We do assume the patriotism of everyone who’s here,” Logue told the crowd, “because you are interested citizens . . . who are here because you care about your vote.” 

Annelise Pierce is Shasta Scout’s Editor and Community Reporter covering government accountability, civic engagement, and local religious and political movements. You can contact her at [email protected] Do you have feedback to share? Email us at editor@shastascout.org or join the community conversation at Shasta Scout’s Facebook page. Do you have a correction to this story? Submit it here. Do you love what you’ve read and want to see more? Your small monthly donations make free news for all possible. Donate here.