Courage has been defined as the willingness to take the path less taken, or if you like, as Hemingway might say, have grace under pressure. There are physical acts of courage. Those examples are more easily seen, our men and women in uniform give justice to the word courage as they perform heroic acts every day. The men and women who had the patience to hunt down Osama bin Laden had courage and persistence.
The word courage has not been associated with politics and politicians for some time. History has many examples of politicians who have exhibited political courage. For the cynics out there, courage and politics seems like a contradiction in terms. The facts do not justify our skepticism or cynicism for there have been acts of courage and there continues to be acts of political courage.
It is difficult for a voter to even find out if his or her Congressperson is being courageous. Congressional News letters aren’t exactly personal, but informational. The current state of journalism makes it harder to know about singular acts of political courage as the news stresses the sensational. If your Congressperson gets in the news the story might not be about what he or she is doing or planning to do but rather about something negative. If the news is about corruption or something about sex, you’ll probably read about it in the paper. Of course, newspapers are about selling newspapers and regretfully not about their local elected officer fighting for an issue that goes against their own party’s interest.
There are different forms of courage. Courage can be admirable or in the case of fanatics, not admired. In some cases a fanatic’s cause may be admirable but violent acts in support of their beliefs are contrary to reason. Negative and violent acts are associated with fanatics.
The public should want politicians who are independent enough to choose to support a position or cause that is contrary to their political party’s position. There have been and there will be issues or causes in the future that will require courage, that have a moral imperative. Slavery, and the preservation of the Union were issues that witnessed acts of political courage. We were fortunate to have men who even sacrificed their career for a cause larger than themselves.
There are reasons, legitimate reasons why it is difficult for a politician to be courageous.
It is not easy to put yourself out there as a candidate for office or to perform one’s job as a Congressperson or Senator. To be brave subjects a person to those who disagree with you and who are willing to do anything to destroy your reputation and popularity. They question your motives and put all sorts of impediments up to deny you victory. Enemies of change put forward lies to get their way.
Walter Lippmann was a keen observer of his day. He once described politicians as the following: “With exceptions so rare they are regarded as miracles of nature, successful democratic politicians are insecure and intimidated men. They advance politically only as they placate, appease, bribe, seduce, bamboozle or otherwise manage to manipulate the demanding threatening elements in their constituencies. The decisive consideration is not whether the proposition is good but whether or not it is popular-not whether it will work well and prove itself, but whether the active-talking constituents like it immediately.”
But not all Politics fit Lippmann’s description. For some their reputation is deservedly bad but for some the public comes late to the fact that a courageous act might have been done to give a voice to the voiceless or to bring justice to the oppressed.
Let us analyze for a moment what makes it especially difficult for politicians to be courageous. What pressures are they under that cause the reluctance of some to do the principled thing?
For most of our men and women that we send to Washington on our behalf, their number one goal is to be re-elected. Being elected takes money and a lot of money, they all spend time having fundraisers and currying the favor of those who seek influence. They tend to shy away from anything that smacks of controversy because it might affect their ability to be re-elected. Our political system encourages mediocrity.
One important factor that seldom gets noticed is actually quite human, we all want to be liked. You are more likely to be liked and popular if you do or say things that you know won’t be controversial. If you stick your necks out too far and advocate something that will attract attention and make people more likely to like you less, well you get the picture. Taking the road less traveled is more likely to make you less popular or so the conventional wisdom goes.
Perhaps the most important but little recognized pressure is that of a Congressperson’s need to keep his constituents happy. This pressure includes keeping the voters and the different and sometimes conflicting interest groups happy. This is a pressure that brings with it great difficulties as it is well-known that one can not please all of the people all of the time. The truth is that it is hard to please any of the people who live in a district or a state any of the time. We tend to want instant gratification these days. What is interesting though is that it is always someone else’s Congressperson who is at fault not your own. There is a built-in contradiction, but never the less it is uncommon to find a Congressperson who is willing to take a stand that goes against the current polling on an issue of any importance.
For an average voter he or she might only care about how they are personally doing. Do they have a job or a good job? What does their future look like? The average voter has his own self-interest at heart. The interest groups who spent a lot of money on their candidate want their pet project to be at the top of the list for the Congressmen or Congresswoman that they helped get elected.
Democracy is truly messy and we hopefully, when the chips are down, will want our own Congressperson to do the right thing. Politics is a two-way street. We want them to do what we sent them to Washington for and they should want to do what the popular will is on a given issue. But should we not respect those rare individuals who are moral and principled and encourage them to be courageous to think and act outside the box for the good of the people? We truly get the government that we deserve. We should want our government to improve though to reflect a greater sense of aspiration. It is our job as the people, to want more from our representatives. We should require of them a moral compass to do more than just follow the will of the people but to lead us when the facts indicate that the popular will of the moment is wrong. We should hope that our elected representatives in Washington will on occasion throw off the yoke of pressure and be courageous when necessary, to lead the people through their convictions and to not repudiate them at the polls because they have looked at what is best for the country.
It should not take courage to do what politicians are elected to do that is to represent their constituents. What is does take is integrity which seems to be something they rank below personal advantage. Question how many former politicians live at the level of the average American?
The Senate is the millionaires Club. Former Senator Biden was the exception. At the time of his election to be Vice President his net worth was only $250,000, and he took the train in to work. I have never seen any stats on our Congresspersons. Political courage is especially rare when a Senator goes against his constituents and does what is best for the nation. I think we call that statesmanship.