Opinion: The protests against Jeff Flake are a product of desperate assumptions

Flake's example should be an antidote to, not a cause of, political spite

Initially, I was surprised to see him.

He was standing a few paces away from the doors of Langford Auditorium, holding a sign that called Jeff Flake, former U.S. Senator and guest of Chancellor Zeppos and the university that night, a coward. Recent installments of the Chancellor’s Lecture Series have hardly been controversial, with past speakers this year including a former NSA and CIA director, a doctor and best-selling author and a professor and autism spokeswoman. But this time, a protester stood outside.

in this political moment, even the most humble, moderate politicians are lambasted for their decisions.

The protester was soon joined by other students who flanked the entrance with signs that called Flake a “fraud” for siding with President Trump on policy and for voting to confirm Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court last October.

My surprise turned to realization: in this political moment, even the most humble, moderate politicians are lambasted for their decisions.

Vanderbilt graduate student Alex Korsunsky told The Tennessean that he was protesting Flake’s appearance because of, among other things, his tendency to criticize President Trump but vote in line with him most of the time – 81.3 percent of the time, in fact. Korsunsky also told the Hustler that Flake was wrong to vote to confirm Kavanaugh given that Kavanaugh “obviously lied and probably is a rapist.”

Such formed the bulk of the other protesters’ arguments. Their signs included lines like “Zeppos should be embarrassed about spending student tuition on this fraud” and “your ‘conscience’ put Kavanaugh on the court,” an allusion to the title of Flake’s 2017 book, Conscience of a Conservative.

Concerning the Kavanaugh claim, Flake himself called for the FBI investigation which sought to corroborate Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault claims, and it found no evidence for them. When I spoke to Flake before he appeared on stage that night, he said, “I do wish that other people could have read the FBI report… I think they would feel better about where the Senate landed in the end.” Despite the FBI’s conclusions, Korsunsky and others opted to ignore them and implicate Flake in a narrative that there’s little evidence for, but apparently still happened.

The protesters also wrongly assumed that Flake’s objection to President Trump’s style and conduct necessitated dissent on policy matters. Flake is no “fraud” for being a Republican and siding with a Republican president on most issues. Senators can still fundamentally disagree with a president’s words or mannerisms but align with him on legislation in the name of larger causes – like tax cuts and protecting the right to life. And Flake was by no means firmly attached to President Trump’s agenda: he voted in line with the president less often than all but four of the 55 Republican senators who served in the 115th Congress.

These criticisms simply don’t hold water. Some have argued that Flake’s decision not to seek a second Senate term was an act of cowardice, of giving in to President Trump. But serving alongside a same-party president carries an expectation of loyalty, cooperation and sacrifice; Flake reached a point where he could no longer offer that. His exit didn’t so much reflect surrender as it did political reality.

A recent Hustler Voices article leveled more criticism against Flake, namely how the Republican Party was responsible for Congress’s descent into partisan rancor, and how Flake did nothing to fight it. To implicate one party in the Washington quagmire and not the other is a convenient bit of self-assurance: House Democrats are currently hoping to “impeach the [expletive],” referring to President Trump, before any convincing evidence has presented itself. Senate Democrats also attempted to delay the Kavanaugh vote until after the 2018 midterms and filibuster the Neil Gorsuch nomination in 2017, both to avert a more conservative Supreme Court majority in classic displays of partisanship.

Flake is a rare example of principled leadership and unflinching commitment to what he feels is best for the country.

This piece is a prime example of partisan finger-pointing, of shrouding one’s own party in protective coating while attacking the other side simply because it’s the other side. It’s a microcosm of our political culture when a senator who led landmark bipartisan immigration reform in 2013 and who delayed his own party’s favored Supreme Court pick is singled out for supposedly being no less stubborn than his more stalwart colleagues because, well, he’s a Republican.

Flake is a rare example of principled leadership and unflinching commitment to what he feels is best for the country. He could’ve sought re-election, but, as he said on the Senate floor, he knew that “a traditional conservative… has a narrower and narrower path to nomination in the Republican Party,” and compromising on his beliefs to score another victory wasn’t worth the extra six years in national office.

Few politicians are like this. Both parties can learn from Flake, in how to engage with dignity with President Trump and in how to react when politics are at a bizarre moment.

Disapproval of Flake based on his support of certain policies is perfectly fair. That’s the nature of political discourse: people have different ideas and can disagree about them. But criticism rooted in half-truths, underdeveloped talking points and desperate partisan overtures is not. Maybe more of us should look to Flake’s example – instead of impulsively criticizing it – to learn how to stick to our principles while avoiding senseless arguments.

Will Fritzler is a first-year in the College of Arts and Science. He can be reached at will.fritzler@vanderbilt.edu.


  1. All this op-ed tells me is that you’re naive enough to believe that political theater is authentic integrity and that you clearly didn’t understand what the protests were about

  2. Will
    I agree 100 percent on your article about Sen. Flake I’m an Democrat was raised as one and believe that Sen Flake was an very sincere and dedicated Sen. He took alot of abuse and still stood firm and dedicated to his party. Which alot of our senators and public officals should lead by examples Sen Flake did.I’m64 years old and am a firm believer in each having their on opinions but have them with evidence to back them. Continue your education and stand for the truth your name is all you have it’s all we each of us have that was told to me by an very smart man my grandfather good luck to you
    Donald Head

  3. The FBI was limited in their investigation. Had they been unhindered by Trump’s limitations they could have done a thorough investigation. The truth is still waiting to be uncovered.

  4. You make some good, well-argued points in this article, and I thank you for engaging with my Voices piece. I could have given more credit to Jeff Flake for such actions as his 2013 work on immigration. That said, I think this article misses the main point of what I wrote. My main purpose was to argue that Flake’s stances on bipartisanship, American political history, and conservative principles do not align well with the evidence on his own record or the actions of his party. The Democrats have not always behaved better than the GOP, but Jeff Flake is not a Democrat, nor is he responsible for what the Democrats have done. He is responsible, however, for living up to his professed love of bipartisanship and fiscal conservatism. That’s why I criticized him for his remarkably low lifetime bipartisanship score and his vote for the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, which drastically expands the national debt. A few high-profile instances of principled, bipartisan conservatism do not absolve Flake of these glaring flaws or the others I discussed in my piece. Finally, although I did not need to do so to support my core argument, I noted that the Democrats were pretty underhanded in passing the ACA. The article I linked hits Harry Reid hard for that mistake.

    Again, thank you for engaging with my piece. Should you ever write about the hypocrisy of certain Democrats, I might even agree with you more strongly than I do with my own piece on Flake.

  5. This was an excellent piece. I think you’ve perfectly perceived the situation, i.e., that the protesters have the narrow view that to show “courage” Flake must vote for left-leaning positions. They lack respect for the real courage Flake showed by giving up his seat rather than appease/subordinate his principles of free trade, fiscal responsibility, but mostly of basic common decency to the politics of Trump.