The conscience of American democracy: the visit of former US Senator Jeff Flake
On 14 January 2020, the Perth USAsia Centre and the United States Studies Centre hosted former U.S. Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona for a private luncheon at The University of Western Australia and a public forum at Government House. Senator Flake is a seasoned American political leader. He served twelve years in the US House of Representatives and six years in the United States Senate.
Senator Flake is the author of the New York Times best seller Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle. His career was characterised by his ability to work across the political aisle, his support for the normalisation of U.S. relations with Cuba, and pushing the immigration reform bill through the Senate in 2013.
Carrying on Goldwater’s legacy
Before politics, Senator Flake’s career began at the conservative and libertarian think tank, Goldwater Institute in Phoenix. The Institute’s namesake, Barry Goldwater, was an Arizona Senator and nominee for president known for his adherence to conservative principles like minimal government and individual responsibility.
During the Cold War era, a movement within the Republican Party called the John Birch Society began to grow its influence by perpetuating extremist views and conspiracy theories about communist influence in American government. Goldwater, with the help of public intellectual William F Buckley, worked to marginalise the Society and keep it from exerting mainstream influence through a series of public speeches and other manoeuvres.
This stands as a historical example of a Senator taking action, with great political risk, to prevent ideologues from overtaking a conservative party and dragging it to the right. In some respects, the John Birch Society is analogous to today’s far-right movement that has found a voice in President Donald Trump.
Reflecting Barry Goldwater’s legacy, Senator Flake remained committed to a conservative agenda but broke with the Republican Party over their near-universal endorsement of Donald Trump.
The 2020 election and impeachment
A pressing theme of Senator Flake’s visit to Perth was his views on the upcoming U.S. Presidential Election. His forecast of the result rests on whom the Democratic Party nominates as their candidate to oppose President Trump. The 2020 Democratic National Convention will take place in mid-July.
Senator Flake said candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are perhaps too far to the left to draw independent and moderate voter blocs. Candidates more likely to succeed against the incumbent are the likes of former vice president, Joe Biden, and businessman and former mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg. Their policy positions are more moderate and therefore likely to reach swing voters.
All that said, from Senator Flake’s perspective, the 2020 Presidential Election is the Democrat’s to lose.
When it comes to impeachment, however, his preference was for the American people to “impeach” the President in the elections, rather than being removed from office through a Senate trial.
Senator Flake was sceptical that the Republican-controlled Senate would vote to remove the President from office. He no less challenged his former colleagues in the Senate to conduct the trial fairly in a recent op-ed in The Washington Post.
Not just words
Senator Flake has been an outspoken critic of hyper-partisanship and the deterioration of civility and principle in the American political discourse, taking aim at President Trump as well and his detractors for poor modelling of behaviour. He shared his concern that a value lost from politics today is the idea that “your opponent is not your enemy.”
This kind of language is unbecoming of a President of the United States. There is no excuse for it, and Republicans should not be okay with it.“
Cruelty in American politics has at times gone beyond mere words. Senator Flake’s first-hand experience as a victim of political violence is a grim reminder of how far vitriol has taken some individuals. His colleague Representative Gabby Giffords of Arizona was seriously injured in an assassination attempt. Senator Flake was a witness to the 2017 Congressional baseball shooting. He and his family have endured threats made against them.
While these experiences in his career constitute his darkest moments, the brightest have been those where he was able to work across the political aisle. He was part of the bipartisan “gang of eight” senators who proposed immigration reform in 2013.
Looking beyond the election this year, a question hangs over the future of the Republican Party. Senator Flake questions whether conservatism will remain a tenet of the party. His concern may be well founded. There are commentators and political scientists like Daniel Ziblatt who argue that a healthy centre-right party is good for democracy. If not the Republicans, than who?
Losing the White House might be one way of prompting the Republican Party to change, but America’s changing demographics over the coming decades might prove to be a more powerful impetus for reform than a political upset. Senator Flake acknowledged that the Party is losing touch with younger Americans with its policies. A 2013 report by the Republican National Committee recommended the Party connect with a more diverse constituency, including young people.
In sum, Senator Flake’s core message to our audience in Perth was “bear with us.” He reassured that other institutions in the United States are still functioning. American democracy is resilient. The American people need to work through this moment in their history.