Politicians often pride themselves on standing up for what they believe in. Last week, Senator Jeff Flake decided he would effectively “take a seat” by not running for reelection in 2018.
The Arizona Republican announced in a speech to the chamber that he “will no longer be complicit or silent” while bearing witness to what he called “reckless, outrageous, and undignified” behavior from the president.
With his speech, Flake has added his name to a growing list of Republican politicians who have spoken out against the president. Flake also criticized the Republican Party leadership in his admonishment of the current White House.
While we can parse many aspects of Flake’s remarks, perhaps the most pressing question Americans must reflect on is where should politicians draw the line between helping their party and standing up for their own beliefs?
When voters elect a Republican president, it is expected that Republican politicians will fall in line behind the president’s agenda. The same goes for Democratic politicians if a Democrat is in the Oval Office. However, these elected officials do not simply serve at the will of the president, or party leadership. Each politician has his or her own beliefs that guide his or her decisions, and perhaps more importantly they represent constituents whose approval they must maintain in order to stay in office. It becomes an impossible task for a politician to keep everyone happy — the president, the party leadership, the constituents, and themselves.
Moreover, in today’s political climate, we see politicians slinging verbal attacks at both their own party members and rivals. No wonder Flake expressed disappointment in the “flagrant disregard for truth and decency” in Washington today.
This lack of “decency” suggests that it might not be worthwhile to fall in line behind party leaders. Flake also pointed out in his speech that the next generation is watching, and it won’t reflect well on Congress if they do not stand up to the president’s “outrageous” behavior.
Party identification could be seen as merely a mental shortcut. Republicans know other Republicans tend to have conservative viewpoints, while Democrats recognize their fellow party members to have liberal viewpoints on today’s issues. It takes 218 votes to pass a bill in the House of Representatives and 51 votes in the Senate; without knowing beforehand where everyone relatively stands on an issue, there is no way that politicians would have the time and energy to seek out all who agree with them.
In this sense, however, the political party should serve as a guide, not a guarantee, to those seeking support of their legislation, not a guarantee of support. Membership to a party should not dictate absolute loyalty to that party’s classic trademarks. Idealistic as it is, there is some belief that our representatives vote with their conscience rather than out of party loyalty.
Sometimes they do vote their conscience and sometimes they do not. Republican Senators have effectively blocked the passage of parts of President Donald Trump’s agenda by voting with their gut, without fearing consequences. These senators have also shown unity in passing a budget plan that will lead to Trump’s tax cuts. In both cases, some stayed loyal to the president and the party, while others did not.
There’s a reason that I held off from mentioning the president by name until this point. Trump may be the current source of dysfunction in Washington, but loyalty versus conscience is not a new conflict.
In reality, politicians are elected to represent us, the public. If their conscience falls in line with the thinking of Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, so be it. But no one in Congress owes Trump, McConnell, or Ryan anything with their votes.
Flake’s service will soon come to an end, but hopefully others will use his remarks as a guide for their actions. Always stand up for what you believe in; do not mistake silence for loyalty.