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Defining “political courage”

By Christopher W. Larimer, University of Northern Iowa Professor of Political Science.

Much has been written about the “courage” of Senator Mitt Romney’s “yes” vote on the first article of impeachment last Wednesday.

But what constitutes “political courage”?

Perhaps the most recognized book on the topic is Profiles in Courage, written by then-Senator John F. Kennedy in 1954 and published in 1956. In the first chapter, Kennedy writes of the three “pressures that make political courage a difficult course” for the “conscientious Senator:”

  • “Americans want to be liked—and Senators are no exception.” (p. 3)
  • “…thinking of that next campaign—the desire to be reelected.” (p.6)
  • “…the pressure of his constituency, the interest groups, the organized letter writers, the economics blocs and even the average voter.” (p. 8)

As the casual political observer will note (and supported by research), these pressures have only intensified over time: opinion polls permeate the news cycle and drive campaign activity; the “electoral connection” as established by David Mayhew is fundamental to understanding why members of Congress do what they do; money has inundated the political system and partisanship within Congress and within the electorate are at record levels.

So while Senator Romney’s vote may go down as “courageous,” the current reality of the American political system suggests political courage will continue to be a rare observation.

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