1. Opinion

Jeff Flake: In a democracy, there can be no bystanders

Some wrote just to say thanks. From Arizona, from all over the country and from abroad. From all across the political map, too. Some wrote to say that they watched the speech with their children, or that they read it aloud to them. "I try to teach my kids to respect others," wrote one man. "The current resident of the White House is not the example I want my kids to follow."

"As a die-hard Democrat, I have to say that before Trump came into office, you were kinda low on my list of senators to admire," one woman wrote. "But I have changed that stance." Another man wrote, "I am a registered Republican, but I am ashamed of what my party has become."

One woman from Phoenix said she didn't like my politics but thanked me for the "small beacon of light" all the same. "Semper Fi," wrote a Marine. One man sent a check for $20.20 and urged me to run for president. (Sir, I will not be cashing the check, but I do appreciate the gesture.)

By the electronic bushel, in thousands of calls and letters, reactions have poured into my office in the days since I spoke on the Senate floor and announced that I would not be running for another term, and detailing the reasons for my decision. A deeply personal outpouring, the scale of which has stunned and humbled me.

Each letter is distinctive, but all are plaintive, anguished, deeply engaged and urgent. They all have in common a feeling of distress that the country has taken a sudden and caustic turn, that we have a president who seems to take pleasure in dividing us. A president who is careless with the position that has become known in the past century as "leader of the free world," and that our institutions and maybe even our liberty are in peril as a consequence. Please, the letter writers all said. Don't stop speaking out. "I'm counting on it," one person wrote in all caps for emphasis.

I can say that reading these letters has been one of the most humbling experiences of my public life. To be clear, I don't find them humbling because the people who wrote to me liked the speech. Indeed, some didn't. I am humbled because until now I didn't fully grasp the level of anxiety and real pain that exists across the country due to the state of our national leadership.

These writers despair not because of the chaos emanating from the White House, but because of the moral vandalism that has been set loose in our culture, as well as the seeming disregard for the institutions of American democracy.

The damage to our democracy seems to come daily now, most recently with the president's recent venting that if he had his way, he would hijack the American justice system to conduct political prosecutions — a practice that happens only in the very worst places on Earth. And as this behavior continues, it is not just our politics being disfigured, but the American sense of well-being and time-honored notions of the common good.

Every president has made poor decisions and every president has at one time or other been judged to be taking us down the wrong path. But such judgments have always been accompanied by a sense that better choices and more appropriate behavior would be forthcoming. I wish I could say that is the case here. But if we are honest with ourselves, we all know that things will not improve.

In reading these letters, and with every step I have taken in the past week in airports, on the street, in the grocery store, I have been powerfully reminded that we have all been raised with fidelity to a very large idea, the American idea. When that idea comes under threat, and it seems as if the center might not hold, it is not just our politics that suffers. When a leader wreaks havoc on our democratic norms, it is not just political Washington that is dragged through the muck. When that happens, it is deeply upsetting to people everywhere, almost existentially so, and we all suffer.

These extraordinary and patriotic voices, calling me and themselves to action in defense of the things we hold dear, remind me that to have a vital democracy, there can be no bystanders.

To everyone who has written or called or stopped me on the street: As a conservative, I do not seek conflict with the president of the United States. But the experiences of this year, and particularly of recent days, have made me realize that to stand up and speak out is sometimes the most conservative thing a citizen can do.

Jeff Flake, a Republican senator from Arizona, is the author of "Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle."
© 2017 New York Times