Ouster of Liz Cheney: Historic implications for American democracy

By David Adler

If Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wy.) had been purged from the House GOP leadership simply because of policy differences on matters of domestic and international issues, few in the United States outside the ranks of party activists, reporters and political pundits would have paid much attention to the machinations. And, given the fact that this column does not traffic in politics, but is dedicated, rather, to the promotion of the Constitution — its origins, text, architecture, history, interpretation and application — it is virtually certain that no ink on the subject would have been spilled in this space.

But the ouster of Rep. Cheney by her Republican colleagues, including former defenders and admirers, has grabbed headlines and dominated the airwaves for reasons that soar beyond GOP infighting and implicate the foundations of our constitutional democracy. Her removal has cast into sharp relief a question of transcendent importance for the future of our nation: Will America commit to the founders’ experiment of republican government anchored, as Alexander Hamilton explained in Federalist No. 1, in reasoned discourse and deliberation fueled by facts and truths and evidence, or will it succumb to the deliberate distortion of events for the self-serving interests of candidates and parties that undermine the fundamental tenets of our democracy? 

The removal of Rep. Cheney from her position as the number three ranking Republican in the House was attributable to a single reason: she has firmly and consistently rejected former President Donald Trump’s false assertion that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” from him. As a consequence, Trump has contended, he, not Joe Biden, is the legitimate president and should be sitting in the Oval Office. Trump and his many GOP supporters have told — and sold — this tale across the country, despite the fact that there is simply no evidence to support the claim. 

Trump and his defenders in the House GOP who voted to oust Rep. Cheney from her leadership post have thus deliberately sought to undermine American confidence in the elections, a tactic which, when imitated, will destroy our democracy. Once deliberate falsehoods about the outcome of an election are peddled with success, and recognized as an effective tactic, there will be no turning back from its use by unscrupulous candidates for office at every level, in every state across the nation. Think of the implications of such a groundless assertion. Like the false assertion of an unlimited presidential emergency power, as Justice Robert H. Jackson said in the Steel Seizure Case, the claim of a rigged election has no end. At that point, American democracy, the rule of law, the peaceful transition of power, and the confidence in the outcome of free and fair elections — the fundamental pillars of our Constitution — will have vanished. That, dear readers, lays bare the existential threat posed by the false claims of a rigged and stolen election. That, it should be emphasized, lays bare the critical need, more than ever, to speak truth to power. 

From this standpoint, and from the perspective of this column, it is not Rep. Cheney’s politics or policy preferences that are of importance here. The question of this great moment is whether Americans will subscribe to the use of a political tactic that deplores the truth and facts and evidence, and pursues victory at all costs. Every resident of North Dakota, like every citizen of the United States, has a dog in this fight.

 “Facts,” John Adams declared, “are stubborn things.” The founding generation was steeped in Enlightenment principles that exalted facts, reason and science over superstition, demagoguery and magic. Accordingly, they erected a scheme of government that dared to place confidence in the ability of the people to govern themselves through elected representatives who swear a solemn oath to defend the Constitution and its pillars: the rule of law, free and fair elections, the peaceful transfer of power, and safeguards to protect the nation and the integrity of elections from insurgents, rebels and the use of force. 

The defense of our constitutional republic – and its most cherished principles – from those who would upend it through false statements, misrepresentations and calculated distortions, has required diligence, energy and passion since the dawn of the republic. It fell to the authors of the Federalist Papers – Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay – to repel the anti-federalists’ misrepresentations of the proposed Constitution, which they hoped to defeat during the great ratification debate in 1787-1788. Hamilton, for example, was at pains in Federalist Papers 69 and 75 to explain and defend the fact that the powers vested in the newly-minted presidency were sharply limited in number and scope and did not represent an embryonic monarchy, swollen with unlimited powers, as Patrick Henry tried to maintain in his effort to persuade Americans to reject the new constitutional system. Henry, given to hyperbole, was not above tactics of exaggeration and misrepresentation in trying to fool the citizenry into believing that the framers had erected an all-powerful federal government that would swallow up states, claims that Madison effectively rebutted.

The point, here, is that governmental leaders were quick to defend our constitutional system by drawing on facts, truth and evidence in exposing misrepresentations. In the 1950s, Americans – governmental officials such as Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine and President Dwight D. Eisenhower and private citizens such as the renowned attorney, Joseph Welch – rose to the challenge of repudiating, and ultimately unmasking, Sen. Joe McCarthy’s (R-Wis.) lies about communist infiltration into the highest offices and agencies in the land. If McCarthy had succeeded in his effort to acquire vast power through resort to the Big Lie, our civil liberties would have been eclipsed and our democracy rendered unrecognizable.  

Our constitutional ship of state depends for its survival on men and women of good faith and integrity to take the helm. In times of urgency, there is always room for additional crew members.

Adler is president of The Alturas Institute, created to advance American Democracy through promotion of the Constitution, civic education, equal protection and gender equality.

Send questions about the Constitution to Dr. Adler at [email protected] and he will attempt to answer them in subsequent columns.

This column is provided by the North Dakota Newspaper Association and Humanities North Dakota.