Columbus, OH – Courage is a word we often hear bandied about in our modern age, but it is as much in vogue these days as a mullet or Mel Gibson. It can be defined in a variety of ways, but they all have something in common: a willingness to sacrifice one’s own life, wealth, status or something of great import for the greater good.
While this trait may be lacking in our society as a whole, it is even further into remission among our elected political leaders – which is a shame, because we’re in desperate need of it.
Scholars Thomas Mann, of the centrist Brookings Institution, and Norman Ornstein, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, recently came out and said in their new book what many of us have been thinking: No longer are the dysfunction, polarisation and toxicity of our Congress the fault of both major political parties. These days, this is the singular accomplishment of the Grand Old Party who sees compromise as weakness, thinks science is for suckers and has turned legislating in Washington into one long Gingrich marriage – without the open part, of course.
“It is the singular lack of courage of any major elected Republican officials in calling out their own party that has helped immensely in getting us into our current age of The Real Housewives of Congress.“
In fact, it is the singular lack of courage of any major elected Republican officials in calling out their own party that has helped immensely in getting us into our current age of The Real Housewives of Congress. It was not thus, once. In the 1950s, in a serious act of bravery at the time, Senator Margaret Chase Smith authored a Declaration of Conscience with six other Republican senators, chastising Senator Joseph McCarthy for his paranoid delusions about those sneaky communists hiding inside his empty bottles of Bushmills.
Nothing left to lose
In later years, many Republicans rebuked the extremist (and Koch-daddy founded) John Birch Society. Next, then-Senator Barry Goldwater expressed his desire to kick the Reverend Jerry Falwell in a rather rotund part of his exterior when the good preacher attacked Ronald Reagan’s choice of Sandra Day O’Connor as Supreme Court Justice. There are many more examples of this phenomenon.
This served an important function. An actual Republican establishment helped reign in the radicals and ensure that their conservatism was not so influenced by the far-right as to embrace the outright nihilism of today’s version of the party. These elected officials told their fellow public servants – as well as commentators – what was acceptable. They made it clear that country came before party and that our commonality as a people came before their campaign contributions.
Today, however, only two groups point this out: pundits and former politicos with nothing left to lose. While it was refreshing to hear George Will call Donald Trump a “bloviating ignoramus”, which was perhaps a tad too kind, that should be Mitt Romney’s job when Supercuts Trump carpet bombs the truth like he has the institution of marriage. Meanwhile, where was Speaker of the House, John Boehner, or Senator Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell?
“Today, these ‘leaders’… wait until they’re out of office and have nothing left to lose, and then speak up.“
Today, these “leaders” (in the sense that Colonel Klink was a leader, or Trump led the USFL) wait until they’re out of office and have nothing left to lose, and then speak up. As Michael Tomasky asked at The Daily Beast, what about Senator Dick Lugar’s responsibility to call out the Tea Party trend in his party over the last few years (or more)? Many on both sides of the aisle have been lionising Lugar, when not feeling terrible that he lost his senate primary to a guy who likely needs his food cut into tiny bites for his own safety. And where was Olympia Snowe, who as a female senator from Maine built a reputation as a Margaret-Chase-Smith-like legislator, but couldn’t be bothered to really attack her own party’s extremism until she decided to retire?
Eyal Press, whose recent book, Beautiful Souls, is all about those who choose to “break rank” and “heed their conscience” during trying times, lamented this lack of courage when we spoke. He shared with me that “someone writing an updated version of profiles in courage would be hard pressed to find a character in today’s GOP for such a book. It speaks to the striking lack of willingness to speak out, that unfortunately characterises our politics generally, and right wing politics specifically in Washington today.”
So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut might say if he were still with us. The president’s birth certificate is questioned, admitted torturer Allen West calls fellow members of the House “communists” and Michele Bachmann runs for president praising the hometown of John Wayne Gacy because she just doesn’t know the difference. So it goes.
Cliff Schecter is an author, pundit and public relations strategist whose firm Libertas, LLC, handles media relations for political, corporate and non-profit clients.
Follow him on Twitter: @CliffSchecter