The Conscience of a Conservative?

by Graham Allison Graham Allison is Professor of Government and former Director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He is the author of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? 04.11.2017

CAMBRIDGE – In a recent speech that received much attention in the United States and abroad, US Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, announced that he would not seek reelection. To agree with the reasoning Flake offered in defense of his decision, one must believe that a US senator’s highest duty is to speak truth to power, repudiate the president for “reckless, outrageous, and undignified behavior” that is “undermining our democracy,” and then quit.

Many mainstream media outlets apparently believe just that, lavishing praise on Flake’s impassioned jeremiad. According to a CNN political analyst, it was “the most important political speech of 2017 – and one of the most powerful political speeches in the modern era of the Senate.” Both The New York Times and The Washington Post featured the speech prominently in front-page stories.

But if we take Flake at his word that he is acting on principle, we must ask: what principle? If Flake is right that democracy itself is in peril unless we all “stand up and speak out,” then what good does it do to throw in the towel?

In his speech, Flake began by pointing out that President Donald Trump’s words and actions are consistently beyond the pale, bringing disgrace to the office of the presidency. But Trump’s coarse behavior isn’t news to anyone who has been paying attention. Flake then announced that he would “no longer be complicit or silent.” We can certainly applaud him for that, but then we should ask what took him so long. All Americans have a right – indeed, a duty – to speak out against threats to their country.

But a senator is more than just another citizen. Flake is one of 100 members of America’s highest legislative body. He shares with his fellow senators the power to vote yes or no on proposals made by the president. He can draft and help shape legislation that he believes to be in the public interest. And if at some point the US House of Representatives brings impeachment charges against Trump, he would be one of 100 judges presiding over that fateful case.

It is understandable that a senator who regards a sitting president as a serious threat to the Republic would sound the alarm. But for that senator simultaneously to announce that he is quitting makes no sense at all, especially given a senator’s unique power to act as well as to talk. Flake’s dire warning suggests that he should stay, not run away.

Of course, Flake’s unstated reason for choosing flight over fight is hiding in plain view. Polls showed that he would have had a tough time getting reelected in 2018. Having been targeted first by Trump, and then by former White House Chief Strategist and current Breitbart News Executive Chairman Steve Bannon, Flake might not even have defeated a Republican primary challenger.

Granted, no one is obliged to submit himself to the slings and arrows of electoral politics. And no one can be blamed for not wanting to participate in the poisonous politics of Washington today. As a citizen, I thank Flake for his service in Congress. But if he wants us to believe that his speech and decision to resign are in the service of the country, and based on principle, then he needs to explain what that principle is.

According to Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative, principled action is that action which, if emulated by all others, would create a world in which we all want to live. Does Flake want to live in a world in which all lawmakers who disagree with Trump have already stood up, spoken out vigorously, and left office?

It isn’t clear whether Flake is calling for a boycott of electoral politics, or merely warning others not to run in races they might not win. Either way, somebody will replace Flake in the Senate. So, it is worth asking if he thinks his successor will be better suited than he is to carry out the critically important duties of public service.

In his 2017 book, Conscience of a Conservative, Flake boldly asserts that “we have become so estranged from our principles that we no longer know what principle is.” Should this now be read as an unwitting confession that he has lost his own moral bearings?

In his speech, Flake cited the Republican president Theodore Roosevelt as the model of “conscience and principle” to which he aspires. But those who have read Roosevelt know that he would not have walked away from today’s fight. “It is not the critic who counts,” Roosevelt said in the speech “Citizenship in a Republic,” which he delivered at the Sorbonne in Paris in April 1910. “The credit belongs to the man in the arena,” Roosevelt continued, “who spends himself in a worthy cause, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Now, that is a principle upon which the United States, and any republic, should stand.

Graham Allison is Professor of Government and former Director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He is the author of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017.

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