It was gratifying, a few weeks ago, to see that Republican Congressman Justin Amash made headlines when he became the first Republican in Congress to support impeaching President Donald Trump. It was gratifying not because I think impeachment is the right thing to do, but rather because it was a rare example of true bravery from a politician, and thus nourishment to my weary spirit.
I imagine the decision might prove unpopular in Congressman Amash’s home district. Indeed, it might even prompt a primary challenge, the most dreaded phenomenon in modern politics. We Americans don’t all agree about Donald Trump and impeachment—but I like to believe that all Americans want our politicians to act from conviction and principle rather than from expediency. Congressman Amash seems to represent a more courageous sort of politics than that which we have become accustomed to, a braver approach to politics which we so badly need in these troubled times.
The very word “politics” has been debased for some time, becoming a dirty word implying spin and manipulation rather than a noble word representing our common project of self-government. We say someone is “playing politics,” or someone is “acting political.” But when I hear the word “politics,” I think of our noble effort to argue and debate as citizens about how best to achieve the good life for our society, rather than accepting the dictates of a king or dictator or ruling class.
When practiced properly, politics is a high calling, demanding service and sacrifice not for oneself but for the common good. But when practiced poorly, politics can certainly become not a lofty but a base pursuit. When the focus of politics is not a collaborative pursuit of the common good but a game of power and competition, the result is not shared benefit but personal aggrandizement and public detriment.
A courageous politician would look for the best in his opponents, and work toward compromise whenever possible. A courageous politician would even welcome the opposition’s contribution to debate, realizing that only when red and blue are together in a room can the needs and hopes of all Americans be represented. A cowardly politician, by contrast, would prefer to stay in power, even if it meant personal debasement, political gridlock, public cynicism, and dysfunctional government. A cowardly politician might even support policies which promote dysfunction, if dysfunction keeps voters motivated to come out to vote for him or her.
In 2010 Republican Senator Mitch McConnell stated that “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” This is the antithesis of courageous politics. It suggests that accomplishing nothing is better than accomplishing something, if our political opponent might get credit for it. The same Mitch McConnell asserted, only a few weeks ago, that he would fill a Supreme Court Vacancy in 2020, ignoring the “election year” logic he employed to oppose filling a vacancy in 2016. This is the antithesis of courageous politics. It suggests that the goal is to win at any cost, logic and fairness and integrity be damned.
In 2016, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, referring to Republicans, stated that “You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for.” This is the antithesis of courageous politics. It suggests that our political opponents are irredeemable, rather than a healthy check on our own views and values. In 2018, former Attorney General Eric Holder stated “Michelle [Obama] always says, ‘When they go low, we go high.’ No. No. When they go low, we kick them.” This is the antithesis of courageous politics. It suggests a race to the bottom, that the proper venue for political discourse is the gutter.
We feel the lack of a courageous politics most of all in the obsession with re-election at all costs. For many, it has been disappointing to see an elected official like Republican Senator Lindsey Graham transformed from someone who considered Donald Trump “unfit for office” to someone who enthusiastically defends the president. Perhaps he had a genuine change of heart. Perhaps he’s simply trying to the make the best of a challenging situation. Perhaps he just really likes playing golf with President Trump.
But I think more likely is the fact that he’s up for re-election in 2020, and his earlier anti-Trump rhetoric likely would have prompted a challenge from the right. As Graham himself admitted: “If you don’t want to get re-elected, you’re in the wrong business.” And so Graham has become a chameleon, seemingly saying and doing whatever he needs to solidify his support to win re-election. He seems to like his new found power and influence, and he is loath to risk losing it.
But we need to stop rewarding politicians who will say or do anything to stay in power. We need to demand more. We need to reward, not punish, politicians who take risks, who hold unpopular positions, and who build consensus across the aisle, even if it means losing an election. I would even argue that we need to support candidates whom we disagree with on certain issues, if they show more courage than their opponents with whom we do agree with on certain issues.
President George H. W. Bush was punished badly for bucking his own party and compromising with congressional Democrats to raise taxes in order to lower the deficit in 1990. It was a principled decision about governing responsibly, but there’s little doubt it contributed to his defeat in 1992. No Republican president has signed a law increasing taxes since.
Since that time, nearly every Republican in Congress and nearly every Republican presidential candidate has signed the “taxpayer protection pledge”, pledging to vote against any tax increase for any reason. This kind of inflexibility pledge makes it impossible to compromise with Democrats on tax issues. Those who refuse to sign become targets of well-funded primary challenges. Interestingly, one of the only 2016 candidates not to sign the pledge was Donald Trump.
I’m not sure we need a no-tax pledge, but I would like to see a “bravery pledge” from our politicians, for them to commit to always making decisions in the best interest of the country, irrespective of the effect of those decisions on their re-election. In short, a courageous politics requires that politicians not fear losing re-election. In politics, long-term victory requires sacrifice, and there will be casualties. A good man or woman might take a stand on a difficult issue, lose an election, but nonetheless push their movement or cause forward, and this is a noble and patriotic thing to do. As long as winning elections at all costs is the greatest good in political life, our political culture will be a feeble and sick one.
It has been suggested that innovative companies like Google encourage innovation and risk-taking by celebrating rather than punishing failure. We need something like this in our political culture as well. Those of us in the depolarization movement need to support politicians who are punished for doing the right thing. We need to find ways to support politicians who get primaried for doing their job well, and this needs to become a central focus for anyone interested in creating the circumstances in which a braver politics can thrive.
Some think that term limits would encourage the sort of bravery in politics I’ve been advocating by eliminating the possibility of re-election. I’m open to that idea, but I’m not yet sold. Not only would I hate to see a great politician term-limited, but our complex institutions thrive on experience and institutional wisdom, and those leaders who’ve been around for a lengthy time and possess a great depth of experience. The sort of bravery I’m advocating for needs to result more from culture and character, I think, than policy or proscription.
Although I care about particular issues as much as any other American, I care more for character and integrity than candidates’ views on abortion or guns or immigration. I care more for character and integrity, because it is only when character and integrity are present that we can trust the process to produce results which reflect the rich complexity and competing needs and values of our country.
Ultimately, the health of the process is more important to me in the long term than the winners and losers on a particular issue. Although I’ll certain continue to support candidates who share my political values on issues, most of all I’ll be looking for those who demonstrate bravery and courage, those who believe in taking unpopular positions because it’s the right thing to do. Perhaps we can agree, as Americans, that a candidate who puts country above self is a candidate we ought to enthusiastically support.