Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Liz Cheney’s Staunch Constitutionalism

Even those who disagree with her policy views ought to acknowledge her bravery.
August 16, 2022
Liz Cheney’s Staunch Constitutionalism
(Photo by Jim Bourg-Pool/Getty Images)

Over the last year, one of the most extraordinary performances of civic grit in American history has played out before our eyes: Liz Cheney’s demonstration of principled constitutionalism. Even those of us who disagree with her policy views ought to acknowledge her bravery. Now, as the congresswoman faces a challenge in today’s Republican primary for Wyoming’s sole House seat—a challenge she is expected to lose—it is worth taking a moment to recognize what she has done.

She did not have to vote, with just nine other House Republicans, for President Donald Trump’s impeachment one week after January 6th.

She did not have to break with her party in insisting that Trump, even out of office, be held accountable for his 2020 election falsehoods and for inciting the mob that attacked the Capitol on January 6th. She could have stayed silent and held on to her House GOP leadership position. But she spoke up and clashed with Kevin McCarthy, and by May 2021, her colleagues voted her out of the chairmanship of the House Republican Conference.

She did not have to vote for the creation of an independent commission to look into the events of January 6th, one of just 35 House Republicans to do so.

She did not have to accept Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s appointment to the House January 6th Committee, created after Senate Republicans killed the proposal for an independent commission. She did not have to accept the invitation to serve as the committee’s vice chair. Nor did she have to play such a prominent part in leading the committee’s inquiry into the events of January 6th.

By standing resolutely in defense of the Constitution, Cheney has brought before the entire nation a rare kind of American patriotism. She’s also gained an almost unique standing among Americans of good will and made clear the incontestably best solution—the application of constitutional principle—to the gravest domestic crisis the nation has faced since the Civil War.

Every day, Cheney has had to withstand attacks and efforts to demean her will. Her former allies scorn her. Trump insults her. She is regularly mocked on Fox News and conservative talk radio. Her state party has twice rebuked her. Her physical safety has been threatened.

Yet through it all, Cheney has stood rock solid. She has acted out of publicly and resolutely avowed conviction. Once she joined the January 6th Committee, she no longer had any place to hide—whether politically or from the public eye. Fortunately for us, that means we can witness her steely defiance, rising above party, in the clear light of day.

Cheney’s determination to put her constitutional fortitude on display has not been common in the history of American politics. Few political figures have so openly taken the risk of betting their offices and careers against their party’s orthodoxy or bucking its leaders as she has done so publicly. Few have faced with greater equanimity the costs and dangers that have come their way.

Even more exceptional are the grounds on which she’s taken her stand.

Most politicians wrap themselves in the Constitution and claim to be its champions while espousing normal partisan views. By contrast, Cheney’s granite constitutionalism shines for being disinterested. Her position on these matters doesn’t take the Republican or Democratic side, the right or the left side. But neither does it reject all interpretive meaning. Rather, she stands in defense of the Constitution however it may be interpreted.

An act of principled constitutionalism doesn’t require an assumption of the Constitution’s infallibility. One simply takes the Constitution as it is, setting aside for later the fights over how it should be interpreted.

Cheney’s stance reminds us that the Constitution always requires defense against attack precisely so that we may exist as a nation under its authority—the authority of the first such constitution in history, one adopted freely by representatives of the people.

Especially in times of crisis, we should expect our public officials to act to preserve the Constitution even at the risk of their political well-being. Most in Cheney’s party have failed to do so. But she has taken the high road: She has made the meaning of the Constitution the Constitution itself.

Cheney’s is an example of the fundamental, American democratic defense of constitutional government. Her bearing toward the Constitution reveals what American civic virtue and American patriotism look like.

As difficult as it may be for Democrats, like me, who reject most of Cheney’s positions on specific issues to do, we owe her a salute for her elemental moral and civic clarity. By saluting her, we acknowledge her fortitude, her strength of character, and her application of sheer will in facing down those who sully the Constitution they are sworn to defend. President Biden should award her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

James M. Banner, Jr.

James M. Banner, Jr., is the author, most recently, of The Ever-Changing Past: Why All History Is Revisionist History (Yale, 2021).