Earlier this month, Liz Cheney accused Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of “clearly trying to cover up what happened” on January 6. It’s hard to overstate just how rare it is for a member of Congress to rebuke a party leader in such stark terms.
Over the past year, the Wyoming representative’s determination to investigate the January 6 insurrection and protect American democracy has led to her ostracization within her own party. The Republican Party removed her from leadership positions and put forth a primary challenge in the upcoming election. While Cheney’s bravery is remarkable, she is not the first politician to break with their party in pursuit of a higher goal. Indeed, she joins a long history of political gadflies who pushed change or challenged the powers that be, including William Jennings Bryan, Theodore Roosevelt, Barry Goldwater, and, of course, John Quincy Adams.
Cheney has followed a tradition of rare politicians who defy their party leadership, people who John F. Kennedy described as “profiles in courage,” but her fate has yet to be determined. There are a few historic examples who offer a sense of the possibilities.
John Quincy Adams perhaps best embraced the gadfly persona—twice. During President Thomas Jefferson’s administration, he repeatedly broke with the Federalist Party to support the purchase of the Louisiana Territory and the embargo in 1807. His Massachusetts constituents, in response, voted him out of office. After joining the Democratic Party, he enjoyed a resurgence as a diplomat, a secretary of state, and eventually the sixth president of the United States. While he lost his bid for reelection, he refused to retire. Instead, he served for nearly 17 years in the House. As a representative, Adams regularly criticized the slave power in the South and served as one of the House’s leading abolitionist voices.
Other representatives were subject to threats of violence from their southern colleagues when they spoke of slavery or abolition, but JQA’s unparalleled position as a former president and son of a president shielded him from duels and caning. He gleefully exploited this advantage and pushed for the repeal of the gag rule (which prevented any discussion of slavery on the House floor), protested the expansion of slavery, and defended enslaved Africans in the Amistad case before the Supreme Court.
Theodore Roosevelt followed in a similar tradition. As a president, he had been a powerful force behind the progressive movement. The achievements in environmental preservation, food and worker safety regulations, protection for women and children in the workplace, and political corruption reform were the product of decades of investigative journalism and advocacy, but Roosevelt’s support helped push legislation and statutory regulations over the finish line. He was initially confident that his handpicked successor, William Taft, would continue his progressive agenda. But he became disillusioned with Taft’s administration after the president sided with conservatives in Congress and the Department of the Interior. Roosevelt declared his willingness to accept the Republican Party nomination, and when that failed, he ran as a third-party candidate. His presence in the race split the Republican votes and produced a victory for the Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson. From then on, until his death in 1919, Roosevelt remained a powerful voice in U.S. politics.
One of Roosevelt’s contemporaries, William Jennings Bryan, played an equally outspoken role in the Democratic Party. A representative from Nebraska and a perennial presidential candidate, Bryan forced a shift in the Democratic Party and national politics toward the common man. While Bryan never won election, Woodrow Wilson appointed him secretary of state in return for his support in the 1912 election. Bryan helped Wilson pass progressive reforms in Congress and served as a powerful advocate of pacifism in the early years of World War I. He eventually resigned from the administration over the war and in retirement continued to advocate for neutrality.
In the 20th century, Barry Goldwater embraced the gadfly role in the Republican Party, albeit in the other direction. As a senator, he was a driving force behind the emergence of the religious right. His nomination in 1964 represented a distinct departure from the more moderate GOP led by Dwight Eisenhower. Although he was badly defeated by Lyndon Johnson, Goldwater continued to push his party to the right for decades. Goldwater was one of the principal architects of the conservative movement that was defined by its resistance to New Deal programs and the Civil Rights Act. He spearheaded grassroots mobilization and demonstrated the power of the “southern strategy”—an attempt to boost turnout among conservative white voters by nodding to racism—which Republican candidates have used ever since.
These historical figures enjoyed unique positions in their own time, whether they were powerful because of their family history, former positions, former campaigns, or power within the political base. Even if they lost elections or were voted out of office, they used their platform to push for a countermovement against the reining powers in their party. As a result, they weren’t beholden to the party structure or party elites and were free to pursue their own agenda. They still maintain an outsized influence on American history.
Liz Cheney seems to fit this mold. Like many gadflies who have come before her, Cheney has a knack for calling out the failings of her peers. At times, she seems to relish her newfound role. In a recent interview, she said of McCarthy, “I wish that he were a brave and honorable man.”
While she no longer has the third-ranking position in the Republican Party, she comes from Republican royalty—the daughter of a vice president—and one of the most deeply conservative states. Her votes and staunch opposition to Donald Trump have placed her at odds with her party. But her ultimate influence remains to be seen. The upcoming election might reveal if she can survive within the party, like John Quincy Adams, or if she will have to be a voice outside the party, like Theodore Roosevelt.