Courage: The Most Overused Word In Politics

Does it take political courage for a California Democrat to attack Donald Trump? Obviously not, just as it didn’t take political courage for a red-state Republican to attack Barack Obama. To qualify as courageous, a political act must threaten the actor’s political future. Neither of the foregoing examples qualifies. Qualifying examples include Abraham Lincoln, who took on every political interest and more to preserve our union, and Lyndon Johnson, who took on his own party to pass civil rights legislation. More recent examples include Gina Raimondo, the governor of Rhode Island who took on the most powerful interests in her party in order to protect services for citizens, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who took on both political parties in leading successful efforts to end gerrymandering and partisan primaries in California. Not every action taken by those actors was courageous — look no further than LBJ’s Vietnam legacy. Each political action must be evaluated separately.

Examples of uncourageous political behavior are far more numerous. In California they include state legislators such as Nancy Skinner and Tony Thurmond, who represent Berkeley and surrounding areas but who nevertheless voted to boost salaries three times in four years for public employee prison guards even though the cost of those increases is borne in part by the University of California, including UC Berkeley in their district. You can be sure neither legislator put out a press release to inform constituents of those votes. Because they and others in the state legislature have bowed to the demands of special interests for years, the University of California’s share of the state budget this year is now nearly 15% lower than it was a decade ago, costing that system $600 million this year. California Republicans are no holier. While they love to blame Democrats for California’s exploding spending on pensions and other retirement benefits, it was Ronald Reagan who first gave extra political power to government employee unions that capture most state and local spending, Pete Wilson whose unproductive budgetary maneuvers led to a destructive change in pension fund governance, and the many GOP legislators (including the current leader of the state Republican party) who voted for the largest pension increase in California history and even made it retroactive.

At Govern For California we support legislators who meet five tests: intelligence, financial literacy, legislative temperament, ability to win and courage. We find nothing courageous about political acts that cater to the actor’s political prospects. To qualify as courageous, the act must cater to the interests of citizens. Next time someone characterizes a political act as courageous, respond by asking who put their political future on the line.

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