Searching For Public Courage

Why are CEOs showing greater public courage than our politicians?

The initial responses to President Trump’s appalling words after the Charlottesville protest ― equating white supremacist, anti-Semitic mayhem and murder with the conduct of that of the victims – raises an important question about public courage: why do our political leaders exhibit less of it than our corporate executives do?

I define public courage as one’s readiness to risk significant personal loss or disadvantage in order to publicly affirm a lofty social value or principle. (Self-interested action may require sacrifice and produce socially desirable results, but it doesn’t count as public courage). Our political leaders should regard public courage as a great virtue. Indeed, it is a hallmark of a morally vibrant democracy, one that our greatest politicians have practiced when it was needed. George Washington sacrificed his intense desire to return to private life in Mount Vernon to Americans’ almost universal view that their fragile new polity needed his leadership to survive. Lincoln’s prosecution of an unpopular Civil War almost cost him the presidency and did cost him his life. Franklin Roosevelt ran great political risks in guiding an isolationist country into World War II; only Pearl Harbor made the politics of entry manageable. Lyndon Johnson rightly predicted that his civil rights legislation would weaken his party for a generation. (Only a southern president, Jimmy Carter, briefly interrupted its decline). John McCain has pursued a number of compromises that he knew would be unpopular enough in Arizona to perhaps unseat him. Other instances of such political courage exist, but are few and far between.

[Their] reputations are tarnished when their silence enables or countenances this immoral behavior.

Alas, political cowardice is the norm, particularly in the more electorally-sensitive House. Politicians usually define success as re-election. This requires them to mobilize their base ― typically a small minority of unusually party loyalists and activists – so as to head off the intra-party primary challenges that today’s gerrymandered districts attract. They do this by shunning unpopular positions, avoiding bad publicity, and running for cover when controversy arises. And once they win, they use these same tactics to prepare for the next election. They think of this not as cowardice but simply as faithful representation of their constituents. Against the risk that they may lose a primary or election anyway, they devise an exit strategy to assure them of lucrative opportunities in the private sector or appointive office that will magnify their later market value. Controversy, they know, will limit these opportunities.

These incentives help to explain why Republican politicians are so reluctant to call President Trump out for conduct and words that deeply offend large numbers of Americans and that the politicians surely reprehend in private. Harder to understand is why so many appointees to top public office, people with admirable, hard-won reputations for integrity and courage do not resign in public protest in this situation. Generals John Kelly and James Mattis, for example, have earned sterling reputations over a lifetime of honorable deeds and sacrifices, yet these reputations are tarnished when their silence enables or countenances this immoral behavior. Presumably, they entered high office at the acme of their careers, hoping to advance cherished public goals. They can best do so by making clear that they will resign if Trump subverts those goals, and then doing so with publicly-stated reasons if it comes to that. This would not entail financial sacrifice; quite the contrary. Yet only two Cabinet secretaries have resigned on publicly-stated principles in the last century (Cyrus Vance in 1980 over Iran policy, and William Jennings Bryan in 1915 over World War I).

In contrast, many business leaders have already resigned from Trump’s advisory councils, and more will likely follow. They have fewer public responsibilities than political leaders do, but they also have more to lose by being outspoken. When they publicly denounce a president’s actions, as a growing number of corporate chiefs have done, they risk offending their customers, shareholders, and workers, not to mention their supposed ally in the White House. Unlike politicians who can succeed merely by satisfying their voter base, corporate leaders must constantly expand their markets or risk losing their lucrative jobs and reputations.

The spectacle of seeing our political leaders lie supine before a president who clearly has little respect for them, their democratic responsibilities, and a constitutional ethos that they have sworn to defend is disturbing. Some well-explained resignations, or at least rebukes, are long overdue. It should not fall to our business elites to lead the way.

Peter H. Schuck, Baldwin Professor of Law Emeritus at Yale Law School, is the author most recently of One Nation Undecided: Clear Thinking About Five Hard Issues That Divide Us (Princeton UP, 2017).