As a Senator, John F. Kennedy authored Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage in 1957 to highlight the integrity by eight United States Senators who did what they felt was best for the nation not their party and they suffered accordingly.
This week Conservative Party members in Britain’s Parliament demonstrated that type of unique political courage. They voted to stop their party leader, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, from leaving the European Union without a deal governing future relations.
They did so, against the express wishes of their party and PM Johnson, whose followers in retaliation have vowed to kick these dissidents out of the party and bar them from running in the next election. In response to the vote, PM Johnson has proposed calling for a general election on October 15.
As reported in the New York Times, these Conservative rebels took this highly unusual break from their Party’s leadership because they believed Johnson’s actions on Brexit would severely damage the British economy and set “fire to their vision of a big-tent party with priorities beyond Brexit.”
Under the parliamentary system, you cannot run for public office from a political party unless you have that party’s approval, unlike in the U.S. where just about anyone can run as a Republican or Democrat, even if they don’t have the approval of the party. In other words, the Conservative parliamentarians knew that they would very likely lose their seat without the party’s endorsement.
Now think of what is happening with the Republicans in congress under President Donald Trump. He has demanded loyalty from them and has threatened retaliation against those who publicly criticize him. They do not need his approval to run as a Republican for congress, but his 80 percent plus approval rating among Republicans has intimidated any effective opposition to his executive orders and policies that threaten our democratic society.
In May 2019, Justin Amash became the only Republican Congressman to call for Trump’s impeachment for obstructing justice. No other Republican in congress has joined him.
Other conservatives and Republicans have come out in opposition to Trump, but they are either former elected officials, like conservative radio personality Joe Walsh, or journalists like David Brooks and Bill Kristol. They are not sacrificing any public office. However, there are sixteen current Republicans in congress who do not intend on running for reelection in 2020. Could this be an indication that they would rather drop out than fight Trump and his followers?
The significant difference between Johnson and Trump is that Johnson, first of all, was not elected into office by the general public, but rather achieved his position as a vote of just conservative party members. Second, and just as importantly, there was a national issue that had to be immediately dealt with.
When Johnson took the unusual step of dramatically limiting the time that parliament could meet and debate any Brexit legislation, he forced members of his own party to recognize that something had to be done within days. There has been no comparative single crises with Trump.
Although his actions ignore the norms of acceptable democratic process like Johnson’s did, they consist of a steady stream of actions with long term impacts that often are initially stifled through our court system. So, there is no impending crises that needs to be addressed within days.
Nevertheless, Republicans face the same two major problems with Trump that the conservatives in Britain faced with Johnson: potential national economic damage and a shrinking voter base.
The first stems from tariff wars being conducted solely by the President and an astronomical growth in national debt that shows no slowing down. The second is the continuous reliance on an increasingly narrow slice of the population. Although not easily seen as grounds for impeachment, they are clearly transforming the Republican Party into a personality driven movement promoting ethnic nationalism at the expense of protecting our general welfare and respecting basic democratic rights.
Which brings us back to the issue of courage. Democracies cannot be sustained on obsequious behavior by politicians whose first concern is to protect their job. It will eventually result either in authoritarian behavior from the top or group think from below. It takes courage to recognize these trends and for elected officials to stop them from growing like a cancer in our society.
The Profiles in Courage chapter on Republican Senator Edmund G. Ross, from Kansas, always stuck in my mind. He cast the deciding vote for acquitting Democratic President Andrew Johnson for impeachment. Ross lost his bid for re-election two years later and none of the other Republicans who voted for acquittal were voted back to congress.
Now, Johnson was not a good president, his policies did not protect the rights of black citizens following the civil war, but the grounds of impeachment were so flimsy that afterwards even some of those most in favor of impeachment realized it would have been a mistake.
It took courage to recognize that maintaining an orderly democracy overrules allegiance to a political party. This past week a select group of British conservative parliamentarians came to that realization. The question is how long it will take for Republicans in congress to get the courage to reach that same conclusion?