Who has stood alone to say no?
October 23, 2013 8:03 AM   Subscribe

On a recent trip to South Africa, I was fascinated to learn about Helen Suzman, "the sole parliamentarian unequivocally opposed to apartheid for thirteen years from 1961 to 1974." It reminded me of Barbara Lee's solo "no" vote on the post-9/11 war powers authorization in the U.S., and I'm now curious: What other examples are there of legislators or similar figures who have taken a deeply unpopular stand and (I know this may be contentious) been borne out by history?
posted by psoas to Law & Government (18 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
ron paul was a sole "no" vote in the house a couple of times; i'm not going to offer an opinion on whether he's been borne out by history.
posted by bruce at 8:16 AM on October 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) was the only senator to vote against the USA Patriot Act in the initial vote, and he continued to work hard on trying to push back against its infringement of civil liberties. His protections kept getting undercut, and he kept voting against the bill.

These days, when so many mainstream people are suddenly discovering how many civil liberties they don't actually have anymore (and now that Feingold has been knocked out of office by a Tea Partier), I think it's clear that he could certainly say I Told You So. I mean, if he were that kind of person, which it doesn't seem he is.

*draws hearts around picture of Russ Feingold pasted in my locker*
posted by theatro at 8:17 AM on October 23, 2013 [33 favorites]

Jeanette Rankin was the sole member of Congress to vote against involvement in WW2, although I have no position on whether this was borne out by history. She also was famous for a similar vote against involvement in WW1, but I am unsure whether she was the sole 'no' voter in that case.
posted by Mr. Justice at 8:30 AM on October 23, 2013 [6 favorites]

Mark Hatfield of Oregon was the only governor to oppose President Johnson's Viet Nam war expansion. He also was pretty lonely in the US Senate for a while there.
posted by BearClaw6 at 8:34 AM on October 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Phillip Morrell, MP and WW1

From A War of Individuals: Bloomsbury Attitudes to the Great War:

"Philip Morrell spoke out against the folly of the war in the Commons on 3 August 1914, standing alone with nearly all the House violently waving their order papers and calling on him to 'sit down'"

One could argue that had the monstrous waste of WW1 not occurred the 20th century would have unfolded quite differently and probably for the better.
posted by canoehead at 8:41 AM on October 23, 2013

Henry Vane opposed the execution of Charles I of England.
posted by lharmon at 8:53 AM on October 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Well, very recently, Sen. Sanders was the only no vote for confirming Penny Pritzker as Commerce Secretary.

Notably from the article:
And not to get real nerdy on you, but soon after Sanders cast his 'nay' vote on Pritzker's confirmation Tuesday afternoon, New York Times interactive news developer Derek Willis noted on Twitter that "Bernie Sanders has been the single Senator to vote No at least once in each of the four congresses he has served in (110-113)."

In other words, at least once every two years since Sanders was elected to the Senate in 2006, he's found himself all alone in at least one roll call vote — and no other senator has done the same.

What were Sanders' other sole-nay votes? According to Willis, there was this 2007 vote, this 2009 vote and this 2012 vote.
posted by General Malaise at 8:58 AM on October 23, 2013

Best answer: Socrates, after the Battle of Arginusae. This was a naval battle which Athens won against superior Spartan forces thanks to some skilful generalship. Unfortunately they also lost a lot of men due to a storm immediately after the battle... but their families back home wanted someone's heads to roll for this, and it ended up being the generals. Socrates happened to be the (randomly chosen) president of the assembly on the day the case was tried. The Stanford Encyclopedia sums up the action nicely:
The generals were being tried for a capital crime in one day... but, even worse, they were being tried as a group, in direct violation of the Athenian law of Cannonus requiring each defendant in a capital crime to receive a separate trial. Some in the Assembly opposed the illegality, but the opposition so incensed the majority that it overwhelmingly approved a motion to subject the opposition to the same vote as would decide the fate of the generals. At that point, several of the fifty members of the Prytanes refused to put the question, so the generals' accusers roused the crowd to greater anger. Socrates alone among the Prytanes was left standing for the law and the generals; his refusal to allow the vote had the effect of allowing one last, eloquent speech from the floor that proposed a preliminary vote to decide between sentencing the group and permitting separate trials (Xenophon, Hellenica 1.7.16–33). The Assembly approved separate trials, but a parliamentary maneuver invalidated the vote. When the Assembly voted again, it was to decide the lives of the generals up or down. All were condemned...
Socrates' position was vindicated fairly swiftly: as soon as everyone calmed down they realized that this was all pretty stupid, and they'd probably have followed up by executing the original accusers, if said accusers hadn't fled Athens first. Firmer vindication came the following year when the Athenians had their arses handed to them by the Spartans, doubtless in no small part because the Athenians had just executed their best generals.
posted by pont at 9:25 AM on October 23, 2013 [5 favorites]

Not quite the same, but John Marshal Harlan was the only justice dissenting in Plessy v Ferguson. He didn't merely dissent, he loathed the decision. He said the decision would be as infamous as Dred Scott. The case that overturned Plessy, Brown v. Board of Education, was unanimous.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 9:40 AM on October 23, 2013 [6 favorites]

The first person who came to mind was Jeanette Rankin. To add to what @Mr. Justice said above, Jeanette Rankin was not alone in voting against the US entering into World War I -- she was one of 50 in the US House of Representatives who voted against it. In the next election, she lost her seat in the US almost entirely because of that vote. She's a personal hero of mine because she lost her seat again when she voted against World War II.
posted by OrangeDisk at 9:47 AM on October 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In 1990, the Mulroney government in Canada was attempting to pass the Meech Lake Accord, a divisive constitutional amendment which needed the ratification of all ten provinces. In the Manitoba legislative assembly, member Elijah Harper stood with a feather because he could not accept the Accord's treatment of and lack of consultation with the First Nations. Because of his dissent, Manitoba could not ratify the MLA, which died shortly thereafter. (Technically he was not totally alone, because the premier of Newfoundland subsequently cancelled the free vote in his assembly but by then the deed was done: the image of Harper alone with his feather is iconic.)
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:58 AM on October 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

George Galloway is someone I despise as completely as any politician I have ever heard of. However he is a superb orator and can run rings around most other politicians, especially the, erm ..., lightweights you seem to employ in the Senate. He is unafraid to go against the tide, here is telling the House of Commons why the UK shouldn't take military action against Syria. Perhaps not technically a lone voice, but a man very short of people who will endorse him in public.
posted by epo at 10:00 AM on October 23, 2013

Gulf of Tonkin resolution had only two dissenting votes in the Senate: Wayne Morse (D-OR) and Ernest Gruening (D-AK). Both were defeated in their next elections.
posted by sixpack at 10:08 AM on October 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: J.S. Woodsworth, Canadian Member of Parliament and leader of the socialist CCF party.

In 1939 he broke with his party and was the only Member of Parliament to vote against Canada's entry into WWII. Having broken with his party, he resigned as leader immediately thereafter. His reason for voting against it was that he was a committed and apparently absolute pacifist, pacifism apparently motivated by his Christian beliefs (he was an ordained minister).

Principled, but then and now that's as deeply unpopular position as you're likely to find.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 10:39 AM on October 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I believe that during the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy was virtually alone in opposing a direct military confrontation with Cuba and the USSR. The world would be a very different place today if his advisors had won the day in that situation.
posted by Rykey at 3:00 PM on October 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Edmund Gibson Ross was a politician who represented the state of Kansas after the American Civil War. His vote against convicting President Andrew Johnson allowed Johnson to stay in office by the margin of one vote. As the seventh of seven Republican U.S. Senators to break with his party, Ross proved to be the person whose decision would result in conviction or acquittal. When he chose the latter, the vote of 35–19 in favor of Johnson's conviction failed to reach the required two-thirds vote. Ross lost his bid for re-election two years later.
posted by DanSachs at 5:43 PM on October 23, 2013

Kennedy has often been discussed as far more Hawkish than depicted in earlier accounts. Can't recall if there's a smoking gun ir unassailable evidence either way. History seems to have borne out that this is contentious.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 8:06 PM on October 23, 2013

Response by poster: Great history lesson, everyone, thanks!
posted by psoas at 7:33 AM on October 25, 2013

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