Don’t steal a glance at your news feed. You’ll likely find another in a string of never-ending alerts about a court challenge to the election, a contrived hearing, or some scheme for state legislatures to overturn the election.
In almost every discussion about the subject, the question always arises: why do so many Republicans bury their heads and pretend it’s nothing unusual? On the local level, a scant few buck the pressure and show the courage to speak the truth and fight the misinformation.
Most don’t. You can’t blame some of them, especially when they fear Trump loyalists will bomb their homes.
To anyone who studies history or human behavior, the lack of fortitude isn’t surprising. Few people possess the mettle to stand by their principles when it matters most. What motivates most people most of the time, is self-interest.
To act counter to one’s self-interest requires a sense of altruism, courage, and moral character. More importantly, it requires an understanding that playing the long game will do more to advance your brand rather than thinking about immediate costs and benefits.
Much of the anti-Trump crowd believed that when the time came, patriotic politicians would defend democracy. With few exceptions, they haven’t. Some may wholeheartedly buy into his claims, while most remain silent, afraid to speak out. It might seem like an aberration in the history of American politics.
We know from history that elected officials possess no more courage or patriotism than average people. We’ve seen this story play out before.
In the early 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist purge stoked fear among the public, earning him popular support. A few questioned his elasticity with the truth and his brutal tactics, but as his popularity grew, colleagues refused to speak out against him, fearing his wrath. But there was one notable exception.
On June 1, 1950, the freshman senator from Maine, Margaret Chase Smith, became the first member of congress to condemn Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch hunt. On the Senate floor, she delivered her speech, titled Declaration of Conscience, and criticized her party for “The reckless abandon in which unproved charges have been hurled...”
She went on to criticize the behavior of her Republican colleagues, concluding her declaration by saying, “It is high time that we all stopped being tools and victims of totalitarian techniques-techniques that, if continued here unchecked, will surely end what we have come to cherish as the American way of life.”
Put her in a time travel machine to 2020, and she could read most of that speech word for word without losing any relevance.
Only six other Republican senators signed onto her declaration. Everyone else remained silent, either believing in McCarthy’s lies or fearing his retribution.
McCarthy later attacked Smith the only way he could. He threw her out of his committee and called her and her six co-signers, “Snow White and the Six Dwarfs.” Name-calling, it seemed, was his chief weapon of attack when the communism label wouldn’t stick.
For the next four years, most Republicans supported McCarthy. He had become the most feared man in America. His popularity began to wane in 1953, as people began to see through his facade, culminating in a series of hearings in 1954, where attorney Joseph Welch thoroughly exposed his treachery.
As his credibility plummeted, he became a liability for the party who then abandoned him. The Senate censured him later that year, capping a humiliating turn of events.
Margaret Chase Smith was one of the brave ones in 1950, though it yielded little benefit for her in the short term. But in 1954, a Gallup poll ranked her as the fourth most popular woman in the world. Famed financier Bernard Baruch said that had a man given her Declaration of Conscience speech, “He would be the next President of the United States.”
McCarthy continued to make unfounded claims about communism to an empty Senate chamber until he died in 1957. Today, we remember him for what he was — an unpatriotic tyrant, bully, and liar.
History has mostly forgotten Margaret Chase Smith. Four years before it became okay to criticize McCarthy, she cleared her conscience on the Senate floor with only six colleagues supporting her.
Politicians haven’t changed much in the last 70 years. It takes courage to do the right thing when the right thing results in condemnation. Politicians, like most everyone else, wait until it’s safe to speak out against a wrong. But Smith lived by the moral, the right time to do the right thing is right now.
We all like to believe we’d act with the same principled courage in a similar situation, but history shows most won’t. In Congress, eighty-eight percent of Republicans refuse to recognize Biden as the President-Elect, according to a Washington Post poll. I’m sure a few really do believe the conspiracy theories, but I’d wager most are buying time, hoping they can remain silent until their master gives the all-clear. They live by the moral, the right time to do the right thing is when it’s safe to do so.
Self-interest influences us more than principles.
It wouldn’t be accurate to blame modern-day Republicans as suddenly unpatriotic. Most are regular people who let short-term costs and benefits dictate their actions. They follow principles when it’s convenient, but self-interest always plays a more influential role.
In 2020, we’ve seen a handful of Margaret Chase Smith disciples call bullshit on the voter fraud claims and Trump’s attempt to interfere with state legislatures. History is being played out in the same fashion as the 1950s. It’s not a deficiency unique to Republicans, rather one of those unfortunate traits all too common in humans.
Selflessness, putting the needs of the whole above the self, living by a set of principles. These ideals are aspirational for most folks. Few follow through when it matters most.
Trump will continue to invoke support or silence from Republican leaders until he becomes a liability, and that won’t happen anytime soon. Events will play out as they did in the McCarthy era.
The honorable ones deserve our admiration — the ones doing the right thing even though it’s hurting their political careers and garnering them death threats. They’ll suffer today for doing what’s right, but history will judge them kindly.