Stop Deriding Liz Cheney

Demanding ideological purity among those who stand up to Trump is not a viable way to protect American democracy.

By Shay Khatiri

Every Ramadan my father would remind me before dropping me at school, “Don’t tell anybody we had breakfast.” A classmate of mine who was our neighbor once ratted my dad out for smoking during Ramadan. Before saying anything remotely political in public, I had to literally look over my shoulder. That is Iran, where I spent two-thirds of my life.

That is not the United States. America is a liberal regime, pluralistic and accepting of people with different views. Americans have always believed that diversity is our greatest strength—diversity in all forms, but especially in thought. That is the genius of the American project, and why I love this country so much—why I consider myself as patriotic an American as they come.

Some Americans, though, seem to have given up on this liberal ideal. For many partisans, nothing short of complete uniformity from their compatriots is tolerable. The most recent example is the purge of Liz Cheney from the House Republican leadership. Cheney was ousted as conference chair, the third-highest Republican role in the House of Representatives, not because she lacks conservative credentials, but because she failed the most important test of the modern GOP: complete and total loyalty to Donald Trump. Cheney’s sin—standing up to the former president’s clear and blatant lies about the 2020 election—was an untenable breach of protocol among Republicans.

Cheney deserves commendation for breaking with Trump and the GOP. The Republican Party’s refusal to accept the results of a free and fair election is an existential threat to our democracy. Defenders of liberal democracy of all political stripes should be applauding her honesty, courage, and refusal to bend the knee. 

But in the pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and progressive publications besides, journalists have been attacking Cheney. They say that it’s too little too late, label her a warmonger, or complain that she’s just too conservative. 

These critiques might be fair to level in a different circumstance, but raising them now as a reason not to applaud Cheney for standing up to her party is foolish. For five years, progressives asked for conservatives to come out and condemn Trump. Yet when they do, these same voices condemn conservatives within the Republican Party’s ranks for the sin of remaining conservative. It is ludicrous, if not reckless, to claim that the threat to the republic is imminent, and then rebuff potential allies who don’t come from the same ideological club. 

Cheney could have gone along with Trump’s lie and stayed in Republican leadership. By fighting back, she is potentially sacrificing a powerful future in the party. Her quick rise up the party ranks shows that she is savvy enough to have had a clear shot at becoming speaker of the House. She was a State Department official and a viable future candidate for secretary of state or defense. She may have even had a chance at winning the Republican presidential nomination in 2024 and becoming the first female president of the United States. 

Instead, she chose to be cast into the political wilderness. This might have been why she waited so long to come out against Trump. To many of us, January 6 was the climax of Trump’s attacks on democracy. For Cheney, it was a wake-up call. But she finally woke up, and now she is sacrificing a potentially great future. That is worthy of admiration and praise, not scorn.

That is not to say that any progressive should become a Cheney superfan. Nor does it mean that Democrats should start agreeing with her on policy. It only means that they should welcome her efforts to preserve our liberal democracy and admire her courage.

As much as some progressives would like to do away with conservatism, America is going to have a conservative political faction with significant influence over a major party. We cannot afford to apply an ideological purity test, especially one that bans all conservatives, in our efforts to save liberalism in America. One can object to Cheney’s views on foreign policy, or even oppose conservatism altogether, and still see Cheney as a welcome addition to the fight against illiberalism.

I say this from experience. In 2009, in Iran, there was a massive uprising against the regime. People were yearning for a free life, which is why nobody cared to ask a fellow protester whether they were conservative or progressive, whether they were religious or atheist, traditionalist or gay. So long as someone had a commitment to a free Iran, we were all in the same camp. 

Defenders of liberal democracy in America, on both the left and the right, should take the same approach. The main political divide is no longer between conservatives and progressives, but between liberals and illiberals. Demanding ideological purity among our liberal allies is not a viable way to protect American democracy.

Shay Khatiri is an editor at Persuasion.