The cost of conscience

Margaret Chase Smith, we don’t need no stinkin’ declaration of conscience! As the chairman of a Republican Party committee in Pennsylvania said of Sen. Pat Toomey, “We did not send him there to vote his conscience. We did not send him there to do the right thing … We sent him there to represent us.”

Putting aside the matter of how dehumanizing it would be to go to Washington to do the wrong thing, the problem is who is “us”? For every voter who wants their senator to do “X,” there are almost as many who want him to do “Y.” The same goes for members of the House, and at every level of government. Those who write their elected official to say “We voted for you and we demand you vote for/against this” seem unable to realize that anyone could hold another point of view.

Elected officials must consider the demands of their party as well as their constituents. Party leadership expects senators to fall in line and party whips are there to see that they do. An exception may be made for a senator who needs to cast an opposing vote on a matter that could imperil his or her future at home, but only if the party is sure it still has the votes to prevail. If it does, the member is given permission to color outside the lines. 

Once in a while leadership announces that on a certain vote, senators may “vote their conscience.” What? As a U.S. senator you need permission to vote your conscience? Maine U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican, had something to say about matters of conscience.

At the time (1950), national security was the issue and Smith was defending the rights of all Americans from “being afraid to speak their minds lest they be politically smeared.” Smith laid out four “basic principles of Americanism”: The right to criticize. The right to hold unpopular beliefs. The right to protest. The right of independent thought.

When it came to her opinion of the Democrats, she did not hold back, upbraiding them for “loose spending and loose programs,” a failure to “provide effective leadership,” “complacency to the threat of communism” and the “leak of vital secrets to Russia.” Yet Sen. Smith urged her colleagues to speak their minds, without pressure.

She labeled the intense pressures brought to bear on members of the Senate in the McCarthy era the “four horsemen of calumny: fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear.” Her floor speech that preceded her Declaration of Conscience is a testament to her courage and clarity of thought.

The Smith-McCarthy battle was a forerunner of today’s debates, growing from an early conspiracy theory that closely followed the same path as those in more recent history. Sen. Joseph McCarthy claimed to have the names of 205 “card-carrying communists in the State Department.” Sen. Smith wanted to see proof. None was forthcoming. In almost a mirror image of last month’s vote, six Republican senators signed on to her declaration.

The controversy took its toll on the country and its institutions. Sadly, it is also a testament to how little we have changed, unless it is for the worse. From Smith:

• “I am not proud of the way in which the Senate has been made a publicity platform for irresponsible sensationalism.”

• “I do not believe the American people will uphold any political party that puts political exploitation above national interest.”

If only that were true. Now the GOP is maintaining that voting one’s conscience is an affront to the party. Five of the seven senators who voted to convict in the second impeachment trial have been castigated by their party organizations in the Censure-palooza that ensued. The remaining two, Collins and Romney, have been chastised but have not yet received official sanction. 

A few Republicans are speaking out about the value of “diversity of thought.” There’s a concept! Collins, fresh off an election win bigger than anyone predicted, was sanguine about the letter Republican officials sent her to “condemn in the strongest terms your vote.” This stern tut-tut of rebuke was somewhat diluted by going on to praise her considerable political virtues.

Whether the party goes on to officially censure Maine’s senior senator or not, she herself pointed out that her approach to her work in the Senate has led to success at the ballot box so far, success that exceeded that of the president she voted to convict. 

Sen. Collins’ political path in the Trump administration has been a roller coaster as she voted to acquit in the first impeachment trial, then to seat Justice Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, and now to convict the former president. She has won criticism and support in equal measures, but when it comes to elections, she wins. 

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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