The Real Political Heroes of This Dumpster Fire Year
There weren't so many people who stood up to their own tribes to stand by what’s right; those who did should be celebrated as models for the rest of us.
Amid the hellish parade of disappointments in this never-ending year of 2020, some real heroes have emerged. Obvious examples include doctors, nurses, and frontline workers, not to mention the scientists and innovators working to create and distribute vaccines.
But what I’m talking about are the political profiles in courage. This year, a handful of heroes had the guts to stand up to their own parties and tribes, often at the risk of alienating supporters and endangering their political (and, increasingly, physical) lives. Those who rose to the occasion during these rare, defining moments in 2020 deserve our praise and attention.
Let’s start with Gabriel Sterling, the voting system implementation manager for the state of Georgia, who delivered that passionate “It Has to Stop” speech in December, calling out those who would threaten violence over the election results. “Mr. President, you have not condemned these actions or this language,” Sterling, a Republican, scolded Donald Trump. Then he turned on Trump’s enablers. “This is the backbone of democracy,” he said, “and all of you who have not said a damn word are complicit in this. It’s too much.”
Unlike some timid Trump critics, he showed righteous indignation, calling out irresponsible actors who are jeopardizing the lives of public servants and innocent election workers alike. By modeling responsible adult leadership, Sterling defended not just the integrity of our elections, but also the work of his team in Georgia. Sure, his speech didn’t sway the MAGA crowd, but Sterling reminds us that there are still decent and honorable people running the machinery of democracy. And that, in turn, gives us reason to hope.
If Sterling’s speech reassured us about the future, South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn’s impact was more immediately felt. His endorsement of Joe Biden turned the tide against Bernie Sanders, “woke” Twitter, and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, ultimately propelling Biden to the nomination and then the presidency. Clyburn proved to be not only a kingmaker, but also an adult, pushing back against extremism within his party.
This is no small thing. When adults don’t step up and do the right thing, we all lose. The GOP is a prime example. When Trump executed his hostile takeover of the Republican Party, evangelical leaders eventually became complicit in his sins. In the Democratic Party, however, African Americans (arguably, the electoral equivalent of evangelicals in the GOP), led by Clyburn in South Carolina, took a bold stand for centrism and pragmatism; it paid off. “We know Joe,” Clyburn said of Biden. “But more importantly, he knows us.” If you’re looking for an example of a leader rising to the occasion and making a difference in 2020, it would be hard to find a better example than Jim Clyburn.
But Democrats weren’t the only members of Congress to rise to the occasion. Another elected official who deserves an honorable mention is Mitt Romney, who began the year by voting for impeachment and is ending the year by calling out Trump’s attempts to steal the election. From a moral standpoint, he might be the only Republican in Congress who will end 2020 looking better than he did at the start of the year. In June, Romney also demonstrated courage by marching with Christians in protest of the killing of George Floyd. Romney told a Washington Post reporter that he was marching to find “a way to end violence and brutality and to make sure people understand that Black lives matter.”
While Romney deserves praise for marching, he’s an elected official who has spent a lifetime thinking about his legacy. I’m even more impressed by the kind of spontaneous courage that was put on display by Lauren Victor, the lady who refused to be cowed by a mob of young white protesters who support the same Black Lives Matter movement that Romney was marching to support.
In case you have forgotten, Victor was dining outside in D.C. when she was heckled, shouted at, and surrounded by protesters demanding she raise her fist in a forced sign of solidarity. If you watch the video, it’s a frightening spectacle. I can imagine that many people would have been either intimidated or shamed into complying. Not Victor.
“When they crowded around my table and started demanding that I raise my fist, it was their insistence that I participate in something that I did not understand that led me to withhold my hand,” she later wrote in The Washington Post. “If you want my support, ask it of me freely. That’s what we do in a democracy.”
Interestingly, Victor says she has voluntarily attended other such protests. But she wasn’t going to be pushed into some performative action. She said no. She held her ground. And it strikes me that our country needs more people who are willing to draw a line in the sand and not cave in to bullies whether on the left or on the right. Different types of courage exist, of course, but I think Victor’s may be the rarest. It’s what Napoleon called “the two o’clock in the morning kind: I mean unprepared courage.” She had no idea this was coming and no time to prepare or think through what she should do; and yet, she showed courage and backbone.
My list of political heroes ends where this column began: in Georgia, where Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger was called an “enemy of the people” by Trump, not to mention receiving death threats from his MAGA supporters, merely for doing his job. He was responsible for certifying (and, after a recount, recertifying) the state’s elections results.
It’s entirely possible that Raffensperger’s political future in Georgia’s Republican Party is over, but he seems to have made peace with that. “At the end of the day, you know, I'm going to stand on the principle of integrity. I think that it still matters,” he told NPR. If only more politicians felt that way.
If you had asked me at the beginning of 2020 who would impress me most this year, I doubt any of these names (OK, maybe Romney) would have been invoked. And, in a way, that gives me hope for the future. Heroes can be found where you least expect them. You just have to know where to look. And in this instance, I’ve given you a glimpse of what the often-derided political arena has to offer. Here’s hoping more courageous pols will arise in the new year—or (if we’re really lucky) that we won’t need them quite so much.