Plight of a Politician
Imagine being an American congressman today. You have to deal with other politicians, be sure that you keep your own position, and do what is best for your constituents and your country. Now, add the need to follow party lines into the mix.
Politicians, from U.S. Representatives to County Commissioners, are constantly under pressure to follow the will of their party. However, when the party goes against that person’s conscience, they either have to risk their career on a single issue or lose their self-respect and honor. The courage to stand up for a person’s principles just isn’t shown today, and if it is, it is portrayed as malice towards one’s own party.
Why Courage Isn't Rewarded
The textbook I chose, Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy, tells about several senators in history who went against their party while doing what they felt was right. One common outcome that all of these people suffer is that after going with their gut and following their hearts, they are regarded as traitors to their party or section. A man who experiences this is Edmund Ross, who votes against his party in the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. When the radical republicans tried to intimidate Ross into removing the president from office, Ross did the courageous thing by following his judgement and voting not guilty. Soon after Ross did this, he was ostracized from the Republican party and wasn’t re-elected to the Senate. The problem with Ross’s fate is that this freshman senator, a hero of the Civil War and a staunch abolitionist, should be viewed as a villain because he followed the evidence. But not only obscure senators committed courageous acts in this book.
One other man covered by Profiles in Courage is John Quincy Adams, who served as a U.S. senator representing his home state of Massachusetts. When Adams went against his Federalist party on a hand full of issues, including the Louisiana Purchase and the U.S. response to the British policy of impressment, Adams was rejected by his party. Not only was John Quincy Adams criticized by the media and fellow politicians of his state, but he was also seen as an outcast in the Senate, a man without a party. Politicians today read these stories and think, “Why should I go against the grain and risk my position and my image on a couple of issues?” Thoughts like these are what lead many good congressmen to forget why they decided to fight for their states and become content with being just another follower with power.
"...any unpopular or unorthodox course arouses a storm of protests..." -John F. Kennedy
Respond with Curiosity, not Anger
The reason that media and politicians attack a political outlier is not because they did something morally wrong, but because they did something unpopular. Like every other person, politicians and journalists want to be liked and well-received, so they criticize political outliers as traitors to their region. This type of rhetoric is specifically used to make people feel betrayed and angry at the outlier. For this reason, readers and voters must think about why a politician would take such a different route compared to his or her party. Rather than assume an outlier betrayed his or her party for money or fame, think about the turmoil that a politician faced when making that unpopular decision. If everyday people would begin to recognize political courage for what it is, then people in power would too.
Another theme of this book is how committing a courageous act doesn’t mean doing what is right. One senator examined in the book is Daniel Webster, who spoke in favor of Henry Clay’s Compromise of 1850, which was drawn up to preserve the Union. Although Webster’s constituents in Massachusetts saw the Compromise as a way to appease Southerners and ultimately preserve slavery, Daniel Webster saw the preservation of the Union as paramount to the survival of the United States. Webster also saw that the Compromise wouldn’t be well received anywhere, but he supported and presented it anyway. This is what makes an unpopular act courageous– the desire to do something unpopular because a person sees it as right. So, going forward, think about what goes into any person’s choice, and think about what you yourself can do to be courageous in your own life.