A Lone Voice in the Wilderness
Adam Kinzinger is a United States Congressman, representing the people of Illinois’ 16th District, a mainly rural and working class locale wedged between the Chicago outskirts and Peoria, a couple hours drive east of Davenport, Iowa.
Kinzinger has represented Illinois in the House for a decade and recently won re-election by a sizeable margin, resting his political case on a brand of traditional American conservatism that resonates in the small towns comprising his district. Strong values, strong defense, responsible economics.
Kinzinger is also a Lieutenant Colonel and pilot in the Air National Guard and has served on active duty with honor in multiple combat zones including Iraq and Afghanistan. He has also deployed to our own southern border to fly reconnaissance missions in support of homeland security. Unsurprisingly, he tends to focus his legislative energies on foreign affairs and national defense, making his passion and knowledge plain at every opportunity.
I got to know Adam a little more than most a few years ago while using the pages of my former blog to advocate on behalf of three airmen who’d been grounded and had their careers destroyed by an out-of-control commander. They were falsely accused of drug use after investigators found on their personal cellphones (using a specious warrant) hilarious text messages based on Miley Cyrus song lyrics (yes, really … you can’t make this stuff up). The Air Force chose to railroad them as part of a move at the time to get tough on professionalism — even after they passed drug tests and reasonably explained the messages.
Adam waded into the issue and committed himself to it. He used his influence to push the Air Force’s top brass into reconsidering the matter, and the pilots ultimately regained their wings and their careers. His involvement was essential to the outcome, and not without political risk given the importance of his defense allegiances to his legislative role and objectives.
The character Kinzinger displayed then has been on display ever since, and particularly over the past four years. He has broken with his party time and again to speak out against Donald Trump’s various antics, but most of all the the rampant misinformation, outright lies, and crackpot conspiracy theories promoted by Trump and his following.
Kinzinger does this at political hazard to himself. In doing so, he demonstrates the courage so lacking in scores of others in his party who believe as he does but refuse to publicly say so. This distills Kinzinger as not merely a man of character, but someone who has thus far managed to survive as a member of the most endangered species in America today: the politician who deals in truth.
Have a look yourself at the video below, where Kinzinger makes his own compelling argument. Note his repeated reliance on facts to support himself.
Just to be clear, this is not a paid political ad for Adam Kinzinger. In fact, politically I don’t agree with most of his major positions. On universal health care, gun control, abortion, even some aspects of foreign policy and national defense … we disagree.
But representative government is about more than policy positions. Republicans today find themselves led at the national level by an objectively low-character person — a self-obsessed and self-serving serial liar who misaligns with the morals and values which have traditionally powered the engine of their party. At least one of them is willing to say out loud that those values still matter, most of all a commitment to truth.
So while I differ from Adam substantially when it comes to ideology, I support him. And in fact I find myself momentarily astonished that such a statement needs to be made so explicitly, when we should all take its elemental correctness for granted. When did we become collectively fool enough to think someone is wrong about everything just because we disagree with them on some things?
Leadership transcends politics. Good leaders are right a lot. Adam is right a lot. For me it is that simple.
He is right to position himself as an opponent of misinformation, no matter the source, and to exhort others to do the same as a duty to country.
He is right to lament the inevitable loss of moral authority Republicans will suffer over the long term by committing themselves to the attempted overthrow of a fairly contested election. And he is right that this cancer of confidence will metastasize and infect our entire system of government if not aggressively treated now.
He is right to denounce opportunism as a flimsy excuse for the damage being done to America’s most sacred institution … its ability to confidently self-govern.
And most of all, he is right to hold that our democracy is more important than any one person, one party, one issue, or one ideology.
Still, there is something darkly Quixotic about Kinzinger’s campaign of truth. The cold fact is that values have never been enough in American politics. There must always be an underlying interest at stake for positions to change. Even “Honest Abe” Lincoln was forced to advance the falsehood that ending slavery was necessary to end the Civil War … and to trade political patronage for the necessary votes in the House to pass the Thirteenth Amendment. Appealing to values was not enough.
We have allowed our elections to become so riddled with money that the interest for Republicans in using the fraudulent idea of a fraudulent 2020 election to raise money is easily enough to overpower their value judgements about Donald Trump … and to outweigh the competing interest in healing our ailing political culture by saying and doing what is right.
Today’s Republicans see their party at particular risk. Many of their prized policy goals are supported by shrinking minorities of the electorate, and might well have been discarded already without gerrymandering, the electoral college, and a steady stream of fake news keeping enough of them in power to maintain an ideological foothold. This explains why they sold their soul to Trump in the first place.
So perhaps for the vast majority remaining silent while lies toxify the nation’s politics, the current interest is in compiling funds to win future elections and hold onto enough power to keep their party and core ideals alive. Maybe the fear of a dying ideology is enough to overwhelm the interests and values vindicated by championing the truth.
But the thing is, Republicanism needn’t choose between dying and aligning itself to a false platform facilitated by a fascist who re-tweets unhinged rubbish and cozies up to white supremacists.
It need only adapt — and yes moderate — itself enough to capture the political support of a plurality of American voters without lying to them to falsely gain their allegiance based on fear, doubt, and perceived injustices.
In other words, it need only return to the time before the Tea Party movement, when there was a genuine discussion among Americans about competing ideas … a discussion rooted in facts and held without the trademark hatred, malice, and cynicism which today mar virtually every attempted discussion.
This, then, is the genius of Adam Kinzinger. He’s a believer in bipartisanship, facts, and genuine debate. That’s all we need right now, which makes him and those like him the perfect political leaders for this moment.
I hope Democrats and Republicans alike reading this will understand just how many Americans feel this way and will enthusiastically support a return to political sanity. There is an interesting opportunity for those willing to join Adam in the ranks of the adults.
And I hope Democrats in particular will take this moment not as a triumphal once, but a cautionary one. Both major parties have contributed to this awful mess with the unsportsmanlike manner of competition over the past quarter century. It needs to stop “on many sides.”
Ultimately though, the next move in this political drama belongs to Adam Kinzinger’s GOP colleagues.
They will either accept, proudly and publicly, the election result and expend energy making genuine adjustments to change the outcome next time, starting with a return to honesty and rejection of Trumpism; or they will adopt Trump’s view of American voters as modern Philistines, and continue to pull the temple down on us all.
Tony Carr is a retired Air Force officer and graduate of Harvard Law School. He writes from his home in Manchester, United Kingdom.