The biblical prophet Jeremiah once asked, “Can an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard its spots?”
His question was rhetorical – pointing out how impossible it was for someone to change his or her nature or character. One who is a liar tends to stay a liar. One who is honest tends to sway towards honesty.
One who is an economic (or classical) liberal at their core – where people can freely exchange goods, set up businesses, instead of worrying about a politician picking winners and losers – tends to remain steadfast in the aforementioned beliefs. He or she clings to these ideals as a drowning person would a life preserver no matter how conditions and political labels change. They might find themselves an outlier in their field because of their refusal to bend towards the will of a seemingly popular and growing faction or politician who prefers loyalty to a so-called leader, instead of their own deeply held morals.
It’s a conundrum Michigan Congressman Justin Amash constantly discovered himself facing.
“[I]t’s not just from Republicans in Congress, Democrats in Congress do this too, and so does the general public,” he told Reason in 2017 while emphasizing the importance of accountability in elected leaders. “I think we should be concerned about hypocrisy, where one side is doing something we think it’s okay, and then the other side does something and we think it’s bad.”
Amash has long been a bit of thorn in the side of Republican leadership because he stayed committed to his ideals. He was kicked off the House Budget Committee by former Speaker John Boehner in 2012 for not supporting a budget he believed did not cut enough spending. He also refused to support a continuing resolution on spending.
“I voted with the Republican side 95 percent of the time, and apparently the 5 percent of the time that I’ve had independent views or voted with the Democrats is unacceptable to the leadership team,” Amash railed to FOX17 in Michigan at the time. “That should serve as a message to everyone at home what kind of a problem we have here in Washington DC.”
The problem is factionalism.
The notion people have to serve their party and sacrifice their ideals in the process is the definition of factionalism. So long as the opposition fails to get any semblance of a win – morals and ideologies don’t matter.
“A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government…an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power…have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good,” James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 10. “So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.”
Or, to quote a friend of mine from high school, “It’s all about the damn jersey.”
This struggle is not something new for conservatives and libertarians who felt politically homeless in the run-up to and after the 2016 election. The Daily Beast’s Matt K. Lewis recently noted the infestation of factionalism means the left sees him as a deplorable because he won’t vote for Democrats running on free everything, while the right sees him as some enabler because he won’t vote for Trump. Bridget Phetasy has also discussed her political homelessness and the notion both sides end up ‘hating’ her because she thinks factionalism and jersey collecting are dumb.
Faced with this growing fight over jerseys in the halls of Congress and streets of DC – and complete dereliction of duty to follow the Constitution from the leadership of both parties – Amash decided he had only one choice: declare independence.
“[W]e owe it to future generations to stand up for our constitutional republic so that Americans may continue to live free for centuries to come,” The newly Independent congressman wrote in The Washington Post in a piece published on Independence Day. “Preserving liberty means telling the Republican Party and the Democratic Party that we’ll no longer let them play their partisan game at our expense.”
Standing up for the constitutional republic is more than just a phrase, however. It’s something members of Congress are charged with at the start of each new Congress. “I [Member of Congress name] do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”
Congress’ fealty is supposed to be to the Constitution – not individual political leaders or party masters.
“[H]e is taking aim at the binary choices offered by the Republican/Democrat duopoly, the unthinking partisanship it seems to require, and the ways that partisanship has made Congress less willing to exercise its constitutional duties as a co-equal branch of government,” Peter Suderman wrote in Reason while analyzing Amash’s call for impeachment of President Donald Trump. “Amash isn’t just taking on Trump; he’s making a systemic critique of the two-party system.”
Amash’s decision to cast aside the Republican jersey should not be completely viewed within a political lens – like previous party defections including the late Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords – for the simple reason Amash has no desire to join the Democrat Party. His criticism of Democrats includes their health care policy, foreign policy, seizure of Associated Press phone records by the Justice Department, and Common Core. He also voted against funding of the Department of Homeland Security in 2015 due to former President Barack Obama’s executive order regarding immigration – something conveniently forgotten by those mewling Amash is only against executive action when Republicans do it.
It should be pointed out declaring “Independence” does not mean you cannot work with your former party on issues. FreedomWorks’ Jason Pye resigned from the Newton County Republican committee in 2016 but has been heavily involved in Trump’s push for justice reform. Amash will likely still vote with Republicans on regular basis despite not being a party member.
What comes next for Amash is difficult to see since the future is always in motion. Leaving the Republican Party gives him the chance to either seek re-election as an Independent or mount a presidential campaign as a Libertarian Party member.
There are obvious risks to both.
Amash certainly enjoys popularity in his district – with wins of anywhere from 53 to 60% in general elections. He does hold town halls on a regular basis meaning his name – not party ID – could get him back in the halls of Congress in 2020. Amash going Independent now ensures he avoids looking like Lisa Murkowski, Charlie Crist, or Joe Lieberman – who ran as Independents after losing their own primaries – should the MAGA crowd oust him in a GOP primary. He’s not going to run as a Democrat, that’s for sure since their socialized economic policies are as anathema to Amash as Trump’s protectionist ones. It’s possible the 2020 congressional race would end up being his Michigan congressional politics swan song since redistricting is coming up. This does appear to be the path he’s choosing based on an interview with WZZM 13. Amash also blasted the notion he went Independent to avoid a primary and promised to caucus with no party.
Amash as a Libertarian presidential candidate is attractive but could still hardly make any real waves. The aforementioned Lewis wants Amash to run for president, as does Reason’s Nick Gillespie. Joining the Libertarian Party could give him a better chance at ballot access – plus his ideology is definitely more in line with the LP, not the GOP. This could also be a dead end although there is nothing preventing him from being an advocate for a party other than the current major two.
This is what it’s all about: the idea that factionalism is killing America. It may not be as hot-tempered as the French Revolution – Twitter suggests otherwise, of course – but when one sees mask-wearing, jackbooted thugs assaulting a reporter for not being one of them, people getting into fights over hats in restaurants, and the murder of a protester by a counter-protester one has to start wondering.
The hope is there are enough adults in America who eschew the partisan nuttery for more even-keeled thinking. Amash is one of them.