Reviews | Liz Cheney and Lisa Murkowski facing their constituents

When elected leaders put party before country, Americans are diminished as a society: we become cynical, we believe less, we vote less. Occasionally, however, we see a leader who takes a principled stand, at odds with his party leaders or supporters (or both) and ultimately against his own self-interest. In our age of partisan warfare, these principled acts amount to political bravery and they are essential to democracy – helping to rebuild our faith in leadership and, in some cases, our confidence in respect for the state. by right.

These acts of political bravery are also a powerful reminder that structural flaws in our political system diminish the incentive to be brave. Leaders who follow their principles risk alienating donors, party leaders and voters who may cry treason rather than seek a measure of understanding. When Senator Mitt Romney cast the only Republican vote to convict President Trump of abuse of power in his first impeachment trial, Republicans nationwide and in Utah criticized the senator; his own niece, Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, defended Mr. Trump and berated “Mitt.” When Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey refused to pledge to defund the police amid a crowd of protesters after the murder of George Floyd, he was booed, parting with mockery of “Shame! Shame!”

These examples of leadership — whether you agree with these positions or not — are important moments in the political life of a country. It is worth noting them, at a time when they are particularly attacked. It should also be noted that the stakes of the present moment will only demand more such acts, especially among Republicans.

On Tuesday, two Republicans, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, will face major challenges as they each seek another term in Congress. They both run against opponents backed by former President Donald J. Trump; indeed, their political fate is at stake solely because they stood up to Mr. Trump when it would have been much safer and politically expedient not to.

They are no different from those Republicans who faced primary challenges and, in some cases, defeat in 1974 after supporting articles of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon. And though the circumstances differ, they are also reminiscent those democrats who voted for the Affordable Care Act in 2010 and lost re-election this fall, or Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, whose efforts to fight the Covid-19 pandemic have made her a divisive figure. She, too, did not follow the safe and politically expedient path; she became the target of an alleged kidnapping plot in 2020 and is being challenged for re-election this fall by a Trump-backed Republican.

Ms. Cheney and Ms. Murkowski actually offer two models of political bravery at a time when direct, direct party support is increasingly common.

Ms. Cheney’s model is that of a consistent conservative who, on a crucial issue that has become a litmus test in the party, took the right stance – exposing Mr. Trump’s campaign lies and attempting to hold him accountable for overthrowing American democracy and fomenting the January 6 attack. She first lost her leadership position in the House; now, as one of only two House Republicans to sit on the Jan. 6 committee, she stands to lose on Tuesday to a Wyoming Republican championed by Mr. Trump. The former president is immersed in the revenge business these days; it has a different purpose.

While Ms. Cheney voted in line with Mr. Trump nearly 93 percent of the time, her commitment is to the rule of law, and her determination to put country above party is clearly more important to her than blind loyalty. Whatever happens on Tuesday, history will remember Ms. Cheney for her principles, just like Mr. Trump for his absence.

Ms. Murkowski’s model is that of a more moderate pragmatist with a history of crossing the aisle on some crucial laws and votes, against the drift of many Alaska Republicans. Ms. Murkowski did not accept the party’s attempts to strike down the Affordable Care Act, and she opposed Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation and supported Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation. She also helped negotiate the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill last year.

But it is his vote to convict Mr Trump in his second impeachment trial that now has him seeking political revenge. She was then one of seven GOP senators to find Mr. Trump guilty; she is the first to be re-elected. Her prospects are better than Ms Cheney’s: She will contest an open primary on Tuesday, with the top four runners-up advancing to a November election that will use a ranked voting system. Ms Murkowski is still one of the most vulnerable Senate Republicans in this year’s election, but Alaska’s system gives her a chance to be judged by all voters there, rather than Republicans alone. recorded.

Both models of political bravery recall another Republican, Senator John McCain, with his negative vote in 2017 that helped preserve the Affordable Care Act, and with his bipartisan efforts on certain political issues, such as health care reform. immigration. And on the face of it, Ms Murkowski’s affinity for two-party coalitions – which annoys some on the right – is shared by two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, which annoys some on the left. The duo are better known for obstructing Democratic legislation than for crossing the aisle to push legislation through, but many moderate and independent Democrats see them as taking a stand for consensus and compromise (neither is politically in vogue these days).

Ms. Cheney’s and Ms. Murkowski’s positions highlight a slew of Republican candidates this season, who are launching scorched-earth attacks on Democrats calling them ‘liars’ even as they continue to promote the big picture. Mr. Trump’s lie.

Some MAGA Republicans like to pretend they are brave with shows of chest-punching, name-calling, and machismo, and complain about being persecuted by social media and the news media. But much of it is political theater aimed at stoking Trump’s base, and none of it requires moral courage.

Violence, like the violence unleashed in the January 6 attack, is a pervasive and growing response to political bravery in our democracy. It was there at the Capitol that day; it was there in the hatred directed against John Lewis and his fellow walkers at Selma; he was present in the alleged kidnapping plot against Mrs. Whitmer; and it is present in the stream of death threats faced by politicians of both parties every time they cross a line.

There is little incentive for politicians to show bravery today. In a recent Times Opinion focus group exploring examples of courage and bravery in politics, six of 10 participants — including four independents and one who leans Republican — said they believed President Biden’s decision to withdraw his troops from Afghanistan were politically courageous. “There are a few of us here who are old enough to remember the troop pullout from Vietnam and how it happened in Afghanistan,” one of the independents said. “But it was something that had to be done. It wasn’t popular, but it was very brave.

Yet the chaos and bloodshed of the withdrawal are the first things many Americans remember; Future generations may remember Mr Biden’s decision to stand firm in his decision, but immediately after the withdrawal he faced harsh public criticism and a sharp decline in his popularity.

Barbara Lee, a veteran Congress Democrat from California, knows this lack of incentive well. In the days following the September 11 terrorist attacks, she became the only voice in Congress opposing the authorization of military force sought by the Bush administration as a means of responding to the cataclysmic events of that month. the. Ms Lee recalled recently that her fellow Democrats warned her at the time that the party could not make military force a partisan issue at a time of crisis. “I said we can’t do this, it’s too broad and sets the stage for ‘eternal war’.” And after rejecting her vote 420 to 1, Ms Lee recalled that her friends in the House “I thought I was making a mistake saying, ‘You’re doing all that good work on HIV/AIDS and foreign affairs ; we don’t want to lose you.

Some colleagues feared for her safety, others for her re-election, she said. “I got death threats – shotgun blasts in my voicemail,” Ms Lee said. “The threats lasted a long time. They don’t come as often, but I still get threats today.

Ms Lee faced a main challenger the following year but was re-elected. She sees a parallel between her experience and that of Ms. Cheney. “In a strong democracy, there is the right to dissent,” Ms Lee said. “She is dissenting as I choose to do.”

Bravery alone is not enough to heal the nation’s partisan divisions. Timothy Naftali, a Nixon-era historian, said he fears the country is far more divided today than it was then. “We didn’t form a consensus on Trump after Jan. 6 the way many Americans did in the summer of 1974 regarding Nixon’s abuses of power,” he said.

And even the most courageous position of principle cannot change the minds of die-hard supporters, Naftali noted. Even after months of work by Ms. Cheney and so many others on the January 6 committee, some recent polls show that he hasn’t really changed public opinion about the former president.

Although Ms Cheney looks likely to lose her primary on Tuesday, she has no regrets. “If the price of defending the Constitution is losing the House seat,” she recently told The Times, “then that’s a price I’m willing to pay.” Democracy needs more profiles of courage like that.