Thursday, April 3, 2008

McCain's Classical Republic

We've known for a long time who Hillary Clinton is and I think we have finally established who this unknown and unaccomplished young Barack Obama is (a socialist America hater), but despite his twenty years in the United States Senate, do we really know this John McCain?

Matt Welch, author of McCain: The Myth of a Maverick (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), argues in "John McCain Wants You" (New York Times, March 26, 2008), that the organizing principle informing McCain's decisions and fuelling his passions is the priority of the res publica and thus the virtuous subordination of individual liberty to the patriotic concern for American greatness. Welch sees "a decade-long attack on the individual" that "reflects a worryingly militaristic view of citizenship."

McCain speaks of "serving a cause greater than self-interest." In a candidates' debate, he distinguished his military leadership from Romney's in the corporate world, snapping, "I did it out of patriotism, not for profit!" In the 200 campaign, he lamented, "We are fast becoming a nation of alienating individualists, unwilling to put the unifying values of patriotism ahead of our narrow self-interests.” He added that, “cynicism threatens to become a ceiling on our greatness.” In these statements, there is a pattern of denigrating the enlightened self-interest on which our economy and politics have been founded from the time of the Founding and on which our political institutions are premised. In their place appears to be a "call to elevate national greatness" that Welch says is throughout the five books McCain has authored. (I would note that this is the same calls to "collective duty and Washington rejuvenation over whatever individual roads we might be pursuing" is the same as Obama's call for unity, but in McCain, a genuine centrist with decades of experience in government, it is plausible.)

I have been excusing his McCain-Feingold assault on first amendment freedoms as merely an emotional reaction to his Keating Five experience and thus an exception to what will otherwise be a conservative defense of liberty. Apparently not. In response to concerns over restrictions on free speech in the sixty days prior to an election under McCain-Feingold, the Arizona Senator said, “I would rather have a clean government than one where quote ‘First Amendment rights’ are being respected that has become corrupt.” Yikes! Welch claims that this understanding of McCain makes sense of his concern for steroid use in professional sports, betting on professional sports, our treatment of terrorist suspects in our custody, and his original immigration bill.

McCain's politics are essentially a pagan, classical republican view of citizenship, but supplemented with the intrusive power of the modern state. The danger is this: the classical view of citizenship enabled by modern technology and by the modern state moves politics in the direction of totalitarianism.

This return to a more civic spirited view of citizenship seems like an attractive antidote to narrow individualism, but its exercise is too informed by McCain's personal understanding of "greatness." The danger of this remedy for the politically unhealthy elements of individualism is that it opens the door to all manner of statist intervention wider than it already is, and even establishes it explicitly as a political priority.

This is a certainty: the next President will be one of the two Democratic candidates or it will be John McCain (ceteris paribus). Casting your vote for a third party candidate or staying home won't change that. Given the importance of Supreme Court appointments, national security, abortion and consumer-driven health care reforms, it is the wiser course simply to contend with any McCain-driven greatness legislation that comes along--which will be the easier to do with these other benefits that will comes with a McCain presidency.

We are not electing a king. McCain would be restrained by his own party. By contrast, there is nothing in the Democratic party to restrain either Obama or Clinton. In addition, despite these references to American greatness, there is an all important modesty in McCain's politics that is missing in the that of the two Democrats, as William Kristol summarizes in "It's All About Him" (New York Times, Feb. 25, 2008):

"It’s fitting that the alternative to Obama will be John McCain. He makes no grand claim to fix our souls. He doesn’t think he’s the one everyone has been waiting for. He’s more proud of his country than of himself. And his patriotism has consisted of deeds more challenging than “speaking out on issues.”"

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