On Jeff Flake and Moral Absolutes

On Oct. 25, one of my favorite political commentators, comedian and author W. Kamau Bell, tweeted this:

“The height of privilege: A politician saying that @POTUS is ruining America but then not seeking re-election because he knows he'll be fine.”

The tweet was in reference, of course, to Jeff Flake-- the latest GOP defector, who took to the Senate floor to both announce his retirement and to sound the alarm about Trump’s administration.

Now, when I first heard of Flake’s speech, I’ll admit-- my reaction was much the same as Bell’s. He’s absolutely correct about the relationship between privilege and the accessibility of choices. That is to say, Flake is a U.S. Senator with a long career in politics and a (generally) respectable  reputation, especially within his own party. Not to mention, he’s upper-middle class, white and a man.

He can fail to challenge Trump, and keep his job. He can lose his seat in the Senate, and still be financially secure. He can watch the Trump administration pass terrible policy after terrible policy, and rather than resisting or trying to stay in the Senate to act as a bulwark, he can let it happen-- because few of these laws are going to target him personally. He’s going to be fine.

So, yes-- Flake did not show the maximum amount of political courage. Those who possess institutional power should use it to protect and uplift those who do not. Flake failed in that respect. Maybe he should have stayed in the Senate. He’s facing a nearly insurmountable re-election campaign, so maybe he should have-- at the least-- promised to block Trump’s initiatives or reach across the aisle to work with Democrats in his remaining 14 months. Maybe he should’ve proposed a new caucus of Never Trumpers who could advocate for legitimate conservative policy-- you may disagree with it, but it wouldn’t have destroyed our republic.

Flake didn’t do any of those things, so we can fault him for that, and be disappointed. But mostly: I want to give Jeff Flake credit. I’ve become incredibly frustrated with the left, to be frank. So many tweets, Facebook posts, and podcasts I encountered in the days following Flake’s speech took the tone of, “Flake did this one thing. But he’s still trash and we hate him.” Many people were disappointed he voted to roll-back consumer protections with regard to class-action lawsuits in the days after his announcement. They said the speech was pageantry.

But-- Jeff Flake is still a conservative. And on balance, I think it’s a good thing to have (fairly) equal representation of the two parties in Congress. I think they should vote differently. I think they should advocate for different ideals. I wish they would converse and cooperate more often than they do, but I don’t desire a liberal monolith. It seems like many liberals do.

Flake’s speech was scathing, and he held himself accountable. He said he felt “regret for the compromise of our moral authority, and by our, I mean all of our complicity in this alarming and dangerous state of affairs. It is time for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end.” He continued, “I certainly put myself at the top of the list of those who fall short in this regard. I am holier than none.”

Flake is one of the few who has publicly condemned Trump. One of the few who has risked (or sacrificed) his career to go on-record as complicit, flawed, disappointed and determined to improve. Because he still votes with his party, or because he didn’t execute his “resistance” in the way we would have preferred, we have no use for him at all? He’s irredeemable? This seems like an exhausting (and unproductive) way to go through life. And I’m already so tired.