In his book, Kennedy took issue with Lippmann’s verdict, arguing, with reason, that “In no other occupation but politics is it expected that a man will sacrifice honors, prestige and his chosen career on a single issue.” And yet here Kennedy was, writing a book that did just that — testimony that those whom Lippmann called “miracles and freaks of nature” were in fact singular cases. To Kennedy, political courage — the act of voting at risk to one’s own electoral fate — was to be celebrated.
Always vanishingly rare, political courage is virtually extinct now. Over and over again, we are told the great fact of our politics in the Age of Trump is that our elected representatives fear crossing the aisle because they will pay a price at the polls — a courageous vote, in other words, will be rapidly followed by defeat and exile from office.
There’s a problem, however, with this prevailing piece of conventional wisdom: It’s wrong. Over the past six decades, courageous high-profile votes have tended not to cost the courageous their seats. From Southern Democrats who supported the Civil Acts Right of 1964 to Republicans who backed Medicare and Medicaid in 1965 through the Clinton impeachment in the 1990s, tough votes have been difficult but not necessarily fatal.
This is not to minimize the political risks of today’s Republicans (and of Democrats who represent pro-Trump territory) who are considering the impeachment and removal of President Trump. But history suggests all was not automatically lost if a lawmaker chose to vote against the prevailing opinion of his party or of his constituents.
Ah, you might say, but what about primaries and preemptive retirements? From the end of World War II through 2018, they don’t statistically or materially change the basic point that courage, far from being costly, can pay political dividends. Is the current climate different? Perhaps. Districts have been gerrymandered to an even greater partisan degree; cable news and digital media have created ever more insular ideological enclaves.
We’re not naive. We’re aware of the structural and human factors that make hyper-partisanship incredibly difficult. A look back, however, shows us what can be possible and suggests that voters have been capable of broader thinking than we might at first assume:
Civil Rights Act of 1964: Thirteen Southern Democrats voted for the measure, including members from Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia. Of these 13, 11 stood for reelection in 1964. Eleven were reelected. The two Southern Democrats in the Senate who voted for the measure also won the next time each ran.
Medicare and Medicaid acts of 1965: These votes placed Republicans in the mostly uncomfortable position of expanding the welfare state and awarding Lyndon B. Johnson a major victory. Seventy House Republicans voted for the measures; of the 64 who ran again in 1966, all were reelected.
The Brady Bill of 1993: Fifty-four House Republicans voted for the measure, which regulated handgun purchases. Of those, all but three stood for reelection in 1994; all were reelected. In the Senate, 16 Republicans supported the Brady Bill. Nine stood for reelection. All retained their seats.
The Assault Weapons Ban of 1994: Some 38 House Republicans voted for the ban. Of those, all but five ran for reelection, and all were reelected. Only 10 Republicans supported the ban when it faced a vote in the Senate. Of those, six subsequently retired. Of the remaining four, none lost their seats.
The Clinton impeachment: Five Democrats in the House voted for impeachment, and four of the five were reelected in 1998. (The fifth chose not to run again.) Of the five Republicans who voted to acquit Bill Clinton of all charges during his Senate trial in 1999, four were reelected; a fifth died before his term expired.
Political courage, then, appears to be an underleveraged asset. In the past, it seems safe to assume, those who exercised it knew what their constituents would tolerate. Which is a reminder that, then and now, political courage is not the sole province of our elected representatives. In the closing pages of his book, Kennedy wrote that in “a democracy, every citizen, regardless of his interest in politics, ‘holds office’; every one of us is in a position of responsibility; and, in the final analysis, the kind of government we get depends upon how we fulfill those responsibilities. We, the people, are the boss, and we will get the kind of political leadership, be it good or bad, that we demand and deserve.” Courage, then, must not only be looked for. It must be practiced — by all of us.