Shortly after the end of World War II, anti-Communist hysteria turned the United States Senate into a forum for red baiting, character assassination, and mockery of the principle of due process. Wisconsin Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy was the primary instigator, but he was hardly alone. Though McCarthy had his detractors in the press, most Senators (especially his fellow Republicans) stayed silent while Tail Gunner Joe ran a slash-and-burn operation on the US Constitution.
The silence ended on June 1, 1950 when Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith took to the floor of the Senate to deliver her “Declaration of Conscience.” In a pointed, passionate plea that was especially gutsy and gritty given the toxic McCarthyite atmosphere, Senator Chase Smith challenged her peers to reflect on their actions:
I think that it is high time for the United States Senate and its members to do some real soul searching and to weigh our consciences as to the manner in which we are performing our duty to the people of America and the manner in which we are using or abusing our individual powers and privileges. I think that it is high time that we remembered that we have sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution.
Senator Chase Smith was under no illusion that the Republicans were alone in exploiting anti-Communist hysteria for partisan gain, and the speech is highly critical of the Democratic administration of President Harry Truman. Yet in a move that to this day is extremely rare in Washington, she bluntly took on her own party. Yes the Democratic administration should be voted out of office, she argued, but
. . . to displace it with a Republican regime embracing a philosophy that lacks political integrity or intellectual honesty would prove equally disastrous to the nation. The nation sorely needs a Republican victory. But I do not want to see the Republican party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny-Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.
I’ve been thinking about Margaret Chase Smith’s Declaration of Conscience very much lately, especially when watching the mental and verbal contortions Republican elected officials go through in order to continue to defend President Donald Trump. We have had some dreadful presidents in our history, but has there ever been anyone who resorted to appeals to “Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear” on an almost daily basis as much as the current occupant of the White House?
The latest debacle involving the president’s public calls for foreign governments to investigate his political opponents obviously cries out for Republican leaders to take on the president, but they should have done that a long, long time ago. This is really not that hard: when you get elected to public office, your oath is not to a Man, but to the Constitution. Former Republican Senator Jeff Flake is probably correct when he says that “at least 35 Republican Senators would vote to remove Trump if the vote was in private,” a reality that is equal parts distressing and pathetic.
Yet instead of Declarations of Conscience, at this point what we are getting from most GOP Senators are Declarations of NO Conscience. Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson in the last few weeks has become synonymous with the “Trump First, America Second” style currently dominating the GOP caucus. After revealing to the Wall Street Journal that he had been told by an administration official that the president was withholding aid to Ukraine for political purposes, Senator Johnson immediately reversed course and started defending the president’s public calls for foreign interference in the 2020 campaign.
A major part of a Declaration of No Conscience is what argumentation scholars call a “heads I win, tails you lose” style of argument. We are seeing that with Senator Johnson when he agrees with the president that most mainstream political reporting on the administration is extremely biased or fake. But then, the Senator will point to articles from Politico and the Hill in 2016 and 2017, suggesting that the Democratic National Committee may have been seeking to obtain dirt from Ukraine sources, as proof that the Democrats are guilty of what they are accusing Trump of. In other words, when a story meets Johnson’s or the president’s political purposes, it is truthful and should not be doubted. When a story demonstrates Trump administration corruption, it is biased and fake. Heads I win, tails you lose.
I am fully aware that many Republicans will respond to this piece with comments like, “the Democrats placed Clinton ahead of the Constitution in 1998,” etc. My response is, so what? We are talking about what is happening right now, not 1998. To be clear, not all GOP factions are content with responding to the president’s behavior with shouts of “whataboutism,” “fake news,” and trolling. Republicans for the Rule of Law is one example of old school Conservatives who want the party to rediscover the Constitution.
Margaret Chase Smith delivered her Declaration of Conscience in 1950, yet the United States Senate did not formally censure Senator McCarthy until 1954. Even though she had set a powerful example of integrity and courage, the majority of her peers would not take action against McCarthy until they felt it was politically safe for them to do so.
I don’t know if a Margaret Chase Smith will emerge in the current Congress. Given the hyperpartisan nature of politics these days, it’s become extremely difficult for elected officials to be passionate about anything other than self-preservation. Lots of Democrats in Maine voted for Chase Smith after her Declaration; today it is difficult to imagine straight-ticket voters crossing over to the other side no matter what great act of courage the person on the “other side” accomplished. If you say, “I will never vote for Ron Johnson NO MATTER WHAT HE DOES,” then you are actually part of the problem–just like your friends who say “I will never vote for Tammy Baldwin no matter what SHE does.”
Be that as it may, hopefully today’s members of congress will reflect on their legacy, and consider that the Margaret Chase Smith’s of the world live on and influence future generations long after partisans concerned only with self preservation die out. The time is ripe for someone like Senator Ron Johnson to have a Margaret Chase Smith moment.