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Why lauding Ted Cruz for "political bravery" is counterproductive

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) delivers a speech on the third day of the Republican National Convention on July 20, 2016.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) delivers a speech on the third day of the Republican National Convention on July 20, 2016.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

After an eventful week of politics, one thing that stands out is the emphasis on courage and conformity.

One question has been whether Ted Cruz's non-endorsement of Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention was about his own career (yes, obviously), or whether it was brave, or a little of both.

On the Democratic side, the discussion has been over Hillary Clinton's selection of Sen. Tim Kaine as her running mate. The political internet has widely declared Kaine the "safe" choice, where safe equates to white, male, and lacking in particular appeal to the progressive wing of the party. This definition of safe is intuitive, even if it unintentionally reveals the comfort we collectively take in white male leaders. But the derision associated with safety deserves further scrutiny.

What is bravery in politics? Doing something that will make you lose (but then it's true that you can't help anyone anymore), or entice violent political enemies (the rawest example in American presidential politics is Abraham Lincoln), or be unpopular. It's a double-edged sword. These things all sound good, but they severely limit a leader's ability to continue fighting for an agenda.

Standing against what's popular, Atticus Finch style, is appealing in some contexts but tricky in electoral politics. (And it's sobering, but instructive, to remember that even in the story, Finch's courageous stance was thwarted by institutional and societal forces.) As any critic of the Supreme Court will tell you, counter-majoritarian thinking undermines some of the key ideas of democracy. In the case of Cruz's convention speech, while many voters in GOP primaries didn't vote for Trump, even fewer of them voted for Cruz.

For Clinton, the case is less clear. On the one hand, she won the primaries — over 3 million more votes than Sanders (votes, not superdelegates). In the most practical sense, this entitles her (along with her campaign team) to do whatever she thinks will help win the election and, perhaps, eventually, govern.

Concessions to losing factions are part of what helps parties function as effective coalitions, at least in theory. But it's unlikely that the party's left flank will flee to Trump or even, in large numbers, to Green Party candidate Jill Stein. So whether Clinton should have done more to appease Bernie Sanders supporters is a question with, as one of the great thinkers of our time might say, a lot of ins, and a lot of outs, and a lot of what-have-yous.

The question more directly related to political bravery is whether Clinton should have chosen a woman or a person of color instead of someone who looks like, well, 43 of the past 44 presidents. This symbolism is important — but we might also argue that even someone as powerful and privileged as Hillary Clinton does not bear sole responsibility for addressing centuries of injustice.

As hard as this is to stomach, it's likely the campaign team considered the fact that a woman or racial/ethnic minority would invite greater media attention alongside questions, veiled and not, about capability and fairness and intelligence. There's no question these factors would be part of the discussion.

So let's ask some other questions. Who would consume such media accounts? Who would harbor such doubts? Probably more people than are willing to admit it. It's fairly easy to ask why Clinton made a "safe" pick. It's much harder to really reckon with why choosing someone other than a white man still requires political courage.

Showing bravery against the political culture is one thing. Bravery against institutions draws even more praise, as we can see from the admiration Cruz's speech drew among some liberals. The lone single voice that can cut through our institutions is a constant trope in political fiction and in our post-Progressive political culture.

What's wrong with overcrediting Cruz for being brave is that his bravery rests on the same logic that drives the Trump candidacy —individual defiance of the mainstream. What would really be brave is if after the convention Cruz rolled up his sleeves and joined up with other NeverTrump Republicans or with libertarians or whoever to create something new.

Speaking truth to power is brave, but going it alone is not brave in a way that is intrinsically useful in politics. Individual ambition is hard to avoid. That's why institutions exist: to harness that ambition and get people to work together. Plenty of people are guilty of embracing anti-party rhetoric and then basically working through parties anyway.

But the further we take this approach to its natural conclusion, the more it gets away from basic ideas of American democracy — considering multiple perspectives, checks and balances, not allowing a single person to dominate the scene for too long. There's a reason we're supposed to be a government of laws and not of men, and the idea of political bravery stands at odds with that on some level.

Institutions, not individuals, are what make this thing work. If you saw Trump's acceptance speech last Thursday, I probably don't need to tell you anything more about that.

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