IA Law Review – Justin Amash: Courageous Independence from Overt Partisanship

By Vynateya Purimetla (’21)

On July 4, 2019, Congressman Justin Amash announced his parting from the Republican Party, citing George Washington’s emotive warning against blinding partisanship amongst other reasons in his Independence Day editorial for The Washington Post (Amash). Just five months later, he was faced with a historic decision done only twice before: impeaching a sitting President of the United States. On that landmark day of December 18, Justin Amash faced vehement opposition from his former five-term party but boldly kept “alive the spirit of individualism and dissent which gave birth to this nation” by being the only non-Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives to vote for both articles of impeachment (Kennedy 17). Although the House’s Minority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise was tasked with persuading irresolute Democrats to switch and ensuring no Republicans defected, Justin Amash boldly chose to cast his vote in an increasingly rare way: with evidence and information rather than with party and persuasion.

Justin Amash is a five-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives for Michigan’s 5th district and currently the only Independent in a body of 435. Born to Palestinian immigrants, Amash was raised in a Republican household and decided to run under the same party mantle for five consecutive bids (Zraick). In 2019, though, Amash decided to split from his party and support impeachment. The backdrop behind his decision: increasingly asymmetrical polarization within the last three decades (Farina). This skew from moderate bipartisan commonalities has created an incendiary culture of villainizing those on the other side of the aisle. Although aware of these disappointing norms, Amash still decided to choose the hard right over the easy wrong when making his decision to impeach. This is because he realized that the purpose of impeachment is to raise concerns over the conduct of an official- not convict. According to constitutional expert Pamela Karlan, President Trump had undeniably met the threshold of impeachable conduct many times over (DeVogue). So what should have been a nonpartisan protection of constitutional values turned into partisan grandstanding exacerbated by the forthcoming 2020 election. Rather than abandoning his oath as a Congressman for the easy alternative of complying with his former party, Amash had to undertake a phenomenal challenge for a Representative: formulating his own stance. He realized that setting a standard against presidential “abuse of power” far better served the long-term public interest than sticking with a contentious President for his own short-term benefit (H.Res.755). By taking the time to understand the charges levied against the President and consult past precedent, Amash overcame the convention of voting with party on political matters and instead followed his “unyielding devotion to absolute principles” (Kennedy 19). This is not to say, though, that he was met with admiration for straying from his party- in fact, quite the opposite.

  Then-Senator John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage lists three dissuasions that stifle political courage from elected representatives: the need for praise and popularity, the seeking of reelection, and outside pressure from special interests and constituents (Kennedy 24-30). Although Representative Amash faced all three pressures casting his vote to impeach, his courage and principles were unwavering. First, Justin Amash proved that his core values were stronger than his need to be validated. Although the President of the United States called him “disloyal” and “a total loser,” Amash refused to succumb to these insults and simply fall in line to avoid ruffling any feathers (Trump 2019). Instead, he took it as an opportunity to comment on the dangerous asymmetrical partisanship and demonizing rhetoric his former party used (Harris). Moreover, conservative advocacy groups that once praised Amash for his “intellectual independence” and “constitutional conservatism” quickly pulled their support from his campaign and began to smear his character when he announced his stance on impeachment (qtd. in Welch). The very same organizations that awarded him accolades for his “independence” ironically about-faced when presented with his actual decision to be an Independent. Secondly, Amash also faces the added pressure of seeking 2020 reelection as an Independent without the luxury of expansive party lobby infrastructure. Establishment Republicans need not worry about grassroots funding and swaying undecided voters. Amash, though, gave these comforts up when switching parties and risked his career to put his principles first. Amash’s valuation of executing his current seat over a preoccupation of gaining it once more clearly reflects his steadfast commitment to carrying out his constitutional duties. Finally, Amash faced outside pressure from his constituents, who put him into office as a Republican. By choosing to defy “the angry power of the very constituents who control his future,” Amash put his conscience over his constituents: a staple of political courage (Kennedy 222). These obstacles that would have deterred a less courageous Congressman from faithfully executing his oath only highlights Justin Amash’s strong principles.

In a time of overt partisanship, true and reasonable Independents are far and few between. Open-minded and rational politicians are being repudiated in favor of inflammatory and divisive alternatives. Even in these stifling conditions, though, rare political courage still manages to shine through and is now more valuable than ever. In these troubling times, a quote from John F. Kennedy rings evermore true: “conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.” Justin Amash may have lost the favor of his President, found difficulties for his reelection, and disappointed special interests. But his refreshing departure from unfortunately predictable partisanship says more about him as a Congressman than the color by his name ever will.

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