Bravery is Communal
Maybe to take a stand is not an individual value, but communal.
As I read and watched the news of the vote in the House to impeach President Trump, a question kept coming to fore. Is bravery or courage an individual trait or is it a communal value?
Many moderate Democrats representing swing districts supported articles of impeachment even at the risk of losing their seats. “I know this might cost me my job, and that’s exactly why I did it,” said Dean Phillips who represents the western suburbs of Minneapolis. Many people have lauded the Democratic representatives for their bravery even at the risk of losing their seats, while Republicans who had their druthers about the President were cowards for not standing up and voting for impeachment.
Neither description is wrong, but it feels like there is more going on than we know.
We tend to think that bravery is one person standing up to a bully. But what if that is not how things work? What if there is something deeper going on here? What if being brave is not about the lone hero, but it is a communal value?
The moderate Democrats have said they are willing to lose their seats if it comes to that. There is a risk that they could lose in 2020. But they share the risk with others. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has promised to do what she could to protect the Democrats, offering certain legislation and even making sure they are funded to take on the Republicans next year. What this means is that Representatives like Phillips can take a risk, because he knows he is not doing this by himself. His party is there to back him up from a coming onslaught from the GOP.
Contrast that with what Republican representatives are facing. Former Congressman Dave Trott of Michigan realized in 2017 that it was a fool’s errand to criticize the president. After expressing concerns on the president’s erratic behavior he got confirmation that it was time to retire:
The response was instantaneous — but had nothing to do with the substance of Mr. Trott’s concerns. “Dave, you need to know somebody has already told the White House what you said,” he recalled a colleague telling him. “Be ready for a barrage of tweets.”
Mr. Trott got the message: To defy Mr. Trump is to invite the president’s wrath, ostracism within the party and a premature end to a career in Republican politics. Mr. Trott decided not to seek re-election in his suburban Detroit district, concluding that running as a Trump skeptic was untenable, and joining a wave of Republican departures from Congress that has left those who remain more devoted to the president than ever.
I shared Representative Francis Rooney’s story in a previous essay. He thought Trump’s actions warranted impeachment. The leadership in House didn’t back him. Nor did they back Justin Amash when he decided spoke up in July. The average GOP lawmaker realizes that going against Trump means facing an unending barrage of tweets from the President and Congressional leadership. On top of that, they aren’t going to get support from constituents regardless of party. So, the decision to come out against Trump is a kamikaze move.
I know some will say Amash was willing to face that, but remember that Amash was not your average Republican. He was far more of a libertarian and only supported the GOP because their positions were closer to his. He was not a “party man” and never needed their help. But other Representatives were people who rely on the party who know that to take a stand means certain “death.”
American culture has made us think that acting courageously is a solitary affair, where the hero performs a selfless act. But as you can see from above, while it was brave of the moderate Democrats to do what they did, they also have a community that was behind them when things get rough. If you think about past stories of bravery you start to notice that they were not always individualistic endeavors. It was a group of passengers on United Flight 93 that were able to thwart the plans of the hijackers to crash the plane in DC on 9/11. British, American and French passengers and train crew stopped a terrorist on a train between Amsterdam and Paris in 2015. It was a group of people who worked together to stop a threat.
As David Brooks noted back in 2009, Republicans like Westerns. There is a love of the rugged individual like John Wayne, standing up to evil. Brooks then contrasts this with one of John Ford’s Westerns, “My Darling Clementine.” Instead of a John Wayne shooting the bad guys, the emphasis of this story is about how a group of people builds a town. We dream of the rugged hero, but in reality, we need the schoolmarm who can form people into good citizens.
If bravery is more often a communal value, then we need to understand why GOP legislative leaders are so reluctant to speak out. It might be that they feel there is no upside to doing the right thing.
You also have to factor in how both political parties have grown more tribal. The rate of tribalism is asymmetrical, with the Republicans more tribal than the Democrats. Jonathan Rauch notes in a 2019 essay how the polarization we are sensing is not as ideological as it is emotional. People want to belong, and the GOP, as messed up as it is now, is a place to belong.
In order for Republican lawmakers to be able to stand up to Trump, they needed someone, anyone that would pledge to back up those Republicans who decided to do the right thing. But so far, there has been no one willing to play this role. Two organizations, Republicans for the Rule of Law and the Lincoln Project, could have been those organizations that offer support if they chose to go against the President. But both organizations were more reactive to the current regime instead of proactive.
Never Trumpers have been good at being the conscience of the GOP, but they were not good at how to respond to the Trumpification of the GOP. When it came to influencing Republican representatives and Senators, the expectation was that these lawmakers would do the right thing. They believed that courage was a solitary value. They believed that GOP legislators would know better or that losing their seats was not a big deal. But they didn’t realize how much tribal nature played.
Tennyson Wolfe used to think that courage was a solitary value, but he is starting to change his mind:
My earlier versions of courage all felt very personal and individual. Stuff that I had to do. But this being communal, well that’s a new spin, isn’t it? The courage to lean into going together rather than alone. The bravery to be in the messiness of figuring things out together when it’s so much easier to isolate and proclaim narrowed certainties. The demanding, yet attractive requirement to see the invisible and the subtle together, not just alone. It takes courage to be together, despite, I believe, we humans being hard-wired to be communal. How odd, right. Yet, so many of the norms of contemporary society now have us needing to reclaim the communal.
Would things have changed if there were PACs set up to support legislators who went against Trump? I don’t know. But I do know that if I am asking someone to be brave it might require something on my part as well.