Walter Lippmann, the influential 20th century newspaper columnist, once defined most American politicians as adept at kowtowing to popular opinion over principle.
“The decisive consideration is not whether the proposition is good but whether it is popular,” he wrote. Those brave enough to buck this method were “miracles and freaks of nature,” he said.
Lippmann wrote this in 1955, but the events of recent weeks have shown it is as fresh today as new-fallen snow. Voters often say they want political courage from their leaders, but most often this means following what they, the voters, want, not decisions based on conscience or principle.
Seven Republican senators voted to convict President Trump on Saturday as the unsuccessful attempt to impeach former president Donald Trump came to an end. Most of them have faced political repercussions in their home states.
Bill Cassidy of Louisiana was censured by his state’s Republican Party just hours after casting his vote. North Carolina Senator Richard Burr faced a similar fate, and others — Susan Collins of Maine, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania — may be censured by their state parties, as well.
Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, a Republican House leader who voted in favor of the article of impeachment against Trump, was censured by the party in her state, fueled by people she said mistakenly believed the Jan. 6 riot at the nation’s Capitol was led by Black Lives Matter and left-leaning groups such as Antifa.
In Utah, an online petition has circulated, urging a party censure against Sen. Mitt Romney, who has voted to convict Trump in both of the former president’s impeachment trials.
However, party leadership in Utah has responded in a unique, refreshing and deeply American way. Noting that Romney voted to convict and Utah’s other Senator, Mike Lee, voted to acquit, the party issued a statement that said, “The differences between our own Utah Republicans showcase a diversity of thought, in contrast to the danger of a party fixated on ‘unanimity of thought.’”
The statement continued, “There is power in our differences as a political party, and we look forward to each senator explaining their votes to the people of Utah.”
That is the spirit that drove the Founders to safeguard precious freedoms in the Constitution. They understood that free thought and an exchange of ideas would lead the nation closer to the truth on issues than blind conformity of thought.
Romney and Lee each have explained their votes, as reported by the Deseret News. Each explanation was well-reasoned and held the power of personal conviction. Voters will have a say if each should decide to stand for re-election.
The Utah GOP statement noted correctly that each senator has been criticized for his decision. The price of political courage cannot be overstated. Today it can attract angry mobs to an elected official’s residence. In Romney’s case, it caused him to endure chants and taunts from angry passengers aboard a plane from Salt Lake City to Washington.
In that 1955 column, Lippmann said, “The unhappy truth is that the prevailing public opinion has been destructively wrong at the critical junctures.”
Given that elected officials often have an intimate knowledge and understanding of issues that average people lack, political courage always will be important to the survival of the republic. That is especially true when the courage required comes with a big price.