Last week, Arizona Republican US Senator Jeff Flake announced he wasn’t running for re-election in a blistering speech on the floor of the Senate that called out the president and his party for moving in a dangerous direction. He warned, “We must never regard as ‘normal’ the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals.” Flake showed that he was putting his country before his party. It was a brave speech that should have given more Republicans the courage to speak out.
Too many Democrats and progressives dismissed Flake and pointed out his conservative voting record including a vote that day to protect banks from class-action lawsuits. The criticisms were misguided and unhelpful. Voting for conservative legislation is not “voting with Trump.” Progressives need to realize that the fight between left and right is not the same as the one between democracy and authoritarianism. Conservatives bring a legitimate, even important, viewpoint to a democracy like ours. Authoritarianism has no place.
Progressives need to sort out the battles we’re having in the country. The fights over issues like tax reform, health care and immigration are part of the normal political debate and dialogue. Attempts to undermine traditional institutions like law enforcement, the press, free speech, the diplomatic corps and the judiciary are dangerous to our democracy. Progressives and conservatives may never agree on political issues but they can and should come together to protect our freedoms and democracy.
Both parties have authoritarian strains at their extremes but Republicans now have them in seats of power. In North Carolina, we got a preview of what the Trump administration would bring to Washington. The GOP leadership here has inserted political influence over governmental bodies that have traditionally enjoyed autonomy. They’ve undermined local governments by redistricting and making nonpartisan races partisan. They’re now doing the same to the judiciary. The so-called micromanaging at the UNC Board of Governors is just another strain of Big Government conservatives asserting their authoritarian power over the university system. They’ve worked to rig the political system through extreme gerrymandering and voter suppression laws. Unfortunately, too few Republicans in the state have stood up against these authoritarian measures that undermine our democracy.
In Washington, conservatives have continued to push their agenda of lower taxes, a smaller social safety net, deregulation and repealing Obamacare. Unlike in North Carolina, some of those GOP leaders in Congress have stood up against the assault on our political and government institutions. Instead of making excuses, they’ve pointed out and condemned the tactics and language that, as Flake says, indulge “our worst impulses, turning against ourselves, glorying in the things which divide us, and calling fake things true and true things fake.”
In addition to the elected leaders like Flake, John McCain, Bob Corker and Ben Sasse, traditional conservative media has called out the president and the GOP. People like David Frum and Bill Kristol bemoan the degradation of the Republican party, but are fearless in criticizing the authoritarian and anti-democratic impulses driving the Trumpists and Bannonites supporting the current administration. They are still conservative and they still disagree with progressives on many, if not most, policies, but they recognize authoritarianism when they see it and understand its threat to our country.
Liberals and progressives should embrace the Republicans and conservatives with the fortitude to call out their own party. It takes courage and character that Democrats should hope that they can find if those authoritarian impulses ever become too strong in their party. Today, the most important fight in this country is not about health care or taxes. It’s about liberal democracy and whether those principles can withstand the rise of nativist populism. In that fight, progressives and conservatives need to unite.