Van Drew and the lost art of constructive dissent

Van Drew and the lost art of constructive dissent
© Greg Nash

Interviewing Rep. Jeff Van DrewJeff Van Drew Democratic challenger on Van Drew's party switch: 'He betrayed our community' Trump to hold Des Moines rally days before Iowa caucuses Van Drew's ex-campaign manager working for Democrat running against him MORE in September for the first time — just two months before he would be launched into the national spotlight as one of the lone congressional Democrats to vocally oppose impeaching President TrumpDonald John TrumpLev Parnas implicates Rick Perry, says Giuliani had him pressure Ukraine to announce Biden probe Saudi Arabia paid 0 million for cost of US troops in area Parnas claims ex-Trump attorney visited him in jail, asked him to sacrifice himself for president MORE — what struck me most was how likable he was. His manner was conversational and down-to-earth, and he spoke so reverently of America: “You know, I love this country. It has afforded me a tremendous opportunity in my life. It amazes me some days that I am a congressman and that I became a dentist. I didn’t start with a whole lot in life... It’s extraordinary to me that a guy like me literally has had this chance, and it’s because it’s America,” he told me.

Prior to being elected to Congress in 2018, Van Drew had become well-known for often being the lone dissenting Democratic vote in the New Jersey state legislature, particularly on Second Amendment issues. Despite his independent streak, he captured coveted Democratic endorsements during his successful bid to win in the conservative-tilting 2nd district. Van Drew told me that throughout his political career, he often won elections, “in spite of being a Democrat.” But, now, as reports circulate that Van Drew plans to switch parties and become a Republican, it seems that something is lost, in an era where parties and ideologies are unwilling to tolerate a dissenting voice from one of their own.

There is something to be said for the role of the in-house critic, whether in electoral politics — or in any ideological group. From Sens. Robert La Follette and George Norris breaking with much of the rest of their party to oppose adamantly the United States’ entrance into World War I, to Sen. Lincoln Chafee being the lone Senate Republican to vote against the Iraq Resolution, the role of standing alone against one’s party has long been a necessary one, even if it is just a matter of forcing colleagues to engage with reasonable alternatives. And, at least in these two instances, history has arguably already come to vindicate their then-disfavored positions.

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Furthermore, the in-house critic knows the worldview of his party and is in a better position to see when it has perhaps drifted astray. It is for this reason that commentators, including the left-leaning political philosopher Matt McManus, have argued that Orwell and Dostoyevsky were the Left’s two best critics: because they had both once been ardent members of the movement and, thus, acutely understood both its positives and shortcomings.

However, in this age of tribalism, toeing the party line has become the highest good. Just as George F. Will no longer felt welcome in a Republican Party that did not tolerate sustained criticisms of President Trump, Van Drew is finding the inverse true: that his party, particularly its primary voters, are unwilling to tolerate failing to wholeheartedly condemn the president. This is not unlike the story that former Pennsylvania Congressman Jason Altmire tells of how party operatives and primary voters penalize rather than reward members of Congress who cross party lines, even those representing — like Van Drew and Altmire — very purple districts.

Certainly, Van Drew is in a difficult position, representing a district that President Trump won by more than four points, while simultaneously losing the support of the Democratic base for rejecting what has become their signature issue: impeaching the president. In the time since the news broke of his potential party switch, Van Drew has been on the receiving end of biting denunciations from fellow New Jersey Democrats, most notably Gov. Phil Murphy. And, on the other side, he risks being turned into a Solzhenitsyn-style living political prop for Republicans, the party he had long declined joining, even when it might have been to his electoral advantage earlier in his career.

Of course, many will choose to view his impending party switch as unadulterated political expediency; however, this is a view that both sells Van Drew short and misses the more important lesson.

Whether it’s Rep. Thomas MassieThomas Harold Massie2 Democrats say they voted against war powers resolution 'because it merely restated existing law' The Hill's 12:30 Report: Pelosi plans to send impeachment articles next week NY Times's Haberman: Trump 'surprised' Iranian strike wasn't 'more of a unifying event' MORE (R-Ky.) casting the lone House vote against condemning Beijing’s treatment of the Uighur people or Rep. Brian FitzpatrickBrian K. FitzpatrickFormer Pennsylvania Rep. Fitzpatrick dead at 56 Republicans came to the table on climate this year The rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2019 MORE (R-Pa.), a purple district Republican, breaking with his colleagues to support the Democrats’ Voting Rights Advancement Act, standing alone has the power to invite colleagues to question and refine the consensus view. This act recognizes that party leaders are not infallible — and that political considerations, in practice, often supersede ideological consistency.

Although history indeed still celebrates political mavericks, primary voters — the ultimate stick for the Van Drews and the Altmires of the world — ought to consider cutting their representatives a little more slack; sometimes dissent is more than warranted, and even if it turns out not to be, a reasoned, dissenting voice at least deserves being considered.

Erich J. Prince co-founded and runs Merion West (@merionwest), a Philadelphia-based group promoting civil discourse in the age of polarization; he also writes a weekly column at MediaVillage on how the news media covers politics. He previously served as a communications strategist for former North Carolina governor Pat McCrory. He studied political science at Yale.