This book review is part of my 2018 Resolution to read more books of substance. It was chosen for the category “a book by someone I agree with politically.”
I did not know who Senator Jeff Flake was until the 2016 presidential election season. As a fervent Never Trumper and Republican, I gravitated towards Republicans in office who also opposed his nomination. To those of us who still considered ourselves conservative (although possibly less Republican as time went on…), Jeff Flake became somewhat of a hero.
Flake has been an outspoken critic of President Trump from the early days of Trump’s campaign. As much as I might have admired his willingness to go against the Republican crowd, most Republicans have not appreciated this rebellion.
Flake announced his retirement a few months ago, attributing his decision to a distaste for today’s political climate where “the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals” is considered acceptable. (Translation: he is retiring because of Trump.)
However, many see his retirement as a result of his dreadful approval rating – his voting base in Arizona will not support someone who speaks so often and so vehemently against their chosen president – and as an attempt to leave office with dignity.
Flake’s book Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle was written in secret months before he announced his retirement, and is viewed as a desperate attempt to explain himself and cement his reelection. Obviously, it has not had this result, but it does serve to show the guiding principles behind Flake’s opposition to the president.
While I do recommend that you read Conscience of a Conservative, I have to say upfront that the writing style is frustrating to read and Flake’s delay in defining what he means by a “conservative” is incredibly distracting.
The definition is not seen until over 50 pages into the book: “Conservatives recognize that there are limits to what government can and should do, that there are some problems that government cannot solve and shouldn’t blunder into, and that human initiative is best when left unfettered” (page 54).
Yet he alludes to it beforehand, and continues to update or reword and summarize this definition throughout: “If conservatives do not believe in the calm, sober use and restraint of government power, then we believe in nothing” (page 24), and, “But free people, freely making decisions among themselves, with the government involved as little as possible – that is the essential conservative position” (page 70) are examples of such.
Throughout the book, Flake accuses Republicans of abandoning these conservative principles – freedom of the people and limited government – to gain majority power in Washington.
A significant example is the case of free trade. During Trump’s campaign, when it came to the economy, Flake notes that “seemingly overnight, we stopped speaking the language of freedom and started speaking the language of power” (page 66). By this he means, traditional lovers of a free economy, unhindered especially by regulations often proposed by Democrats, were suddenly supporting a candidate who preached tariffs, trade wars, and border taxes in the name of American superiority…just to win an election.
Despite his willingness to criticize Trump on all fronts and his alienation from the Republican party at large, Flake is still no darling of the Left.
Because his beliefs often align with the Republican party platform, when it comes to most policy issues (a notable and significant exception is immigration), Flake has supported the Republican agenda in Congress. He has also helped to confirm Trump’s many nominees. Democrats cannot look past this.
But, for the Democrat curious why Flake continues to support a Republican agenda, and for the Republican who doesn’t understand why Flake won’t fall in line, I think Conscience of a Conservative is a worthwhile read and can provide unique insight.
For someone like me, however, this book is a refreshing opportunity to see an elected official willing to be politically homeless for the sake of principle.