FeatureFirst DraftsLettersLiberal Democracy in Question

Why I Welcome John McCain’s “Liberty Medal” Speech

McCain on the 'meaning of American politics'

Yesterday Senator John McCain was awarded a “Liberty medal” by the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. And he chose this event to make an important speech about the “meaning of American politics.”

The Center is a bipartisan organization created by Congress to promote an appreciation for the U.S. Constitution. Its President and CEO is Jeffrey Rosen, a highly respected legal journalist. Its Chairman is Joseph Biden (previous chairs include Jeb Bush, Bill Clinton, and George H.W. Bush); its Executive Committee is chaired by Doug DeVos; its Board of Trustees includes a number of prominent legal scholars, corporate leaders, and celebrities; and its Advisory Board consists of top legal scholars from across the political spectrum. According to the Center’s website:

The National Constitution Center is the first and only institution in America established by Congress to “disseminate information about the United States Constitution on a non-partisan basis in order to increase the awareness and understanding of the Constitution among the American people.” The Constitution Center brings the United States Constitution to life by hosting interactive exhibits and constitutional conversations and inspires active citizenship by celebrating the American constitutional tradition.

The Liberty Medal is “awarded annually by the National Constitution Center to men and women of courage and conviction who have strived to secure the blessings of liberty to people the world over.” Previous Medal winners include John Lewis (2016), the Dalai Lama (2015), Malala Yousafzai (2014), Hillary Clinton (2013) and Muhammad Ali (2012).

McCain’s speech has been widely reported, especially its full-throated repudiation of the “America first” discourse of Donald Trump and Steve Bannon: “To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain “the last best hope of earth” for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.” The speech was more than a clear denunciation of Trumpism. It offered a testament to Senatorial bipartisanship, American exceptionalism (“We are living in the land of the free, the land where anything is possible, the land of the immigrant’s dream, the land with the storied past forgotten in the rush to the imagined future, the land that repairs and reinvents itself, the land where a person can escape the consequences of a self-centered youth and know the satisfaction of sacrificing for an ideal, the land where you can go from aimless rebellion to a noble cause, and from the bottom of your class to your party’s nomination for president.”), and a strong U.S. role in the world, as epitomized by “the international order we helped build from the ashes of world war.”

McCain’s message is summed up best in these words:

We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil. We are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad. We have done great good in the world. That leadership has had its costs, but we have become incomparably powerful and wealthy as we did. We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we don’t. We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to.

There is nothing new or surprising in these words. They seem well-designed to suit the occasion of their delivery, at an utterly establishment, mainstream event put on by an emphatically patriotic organization run by elites. And they are perfectly consistent with the perspective for which McCain has long been known: a globalist, interventionist, neoconservative commitment to the discourse of “democracy promotion” and “human rights.” As notable as are McCain’s powerful words are the silences in his speech, about the historical failings of the American political system, and the actual freedom struggles that have been fought (and are still being fought) to right some of those wrongs, and about some of the most notable foreign policy disasters associated with his global vision, including Vietnam but also the Iraq war that McCain so strenuously supported.

The mainstream media has perhaps been too eager to celebrate McCain and his speech, and too reluctant or unable to set this speech in a broader historical context, in which its limits can be better understood, and in which McCain’s personal limits can be better understood (think Sarah Palin). And it is important to say that McCain’s discourse about human rights and global democracy and indeed about America’s “mission” is linked to a broader neoconservative policy agenda that serious people on the liberal left oppose and should oppose.

I oppose it. And I question the speech’s gentlemanly appeal to bipartisanship, its broadly celebratory tone, and its silences about the real “dark sides” of the American political tradition.

At the same time, I welcome the speech.

One reason why I welcome it is completely situational: at this particular moment in U.S. political history, when the White House is being occupied by an ignorant, cruel and narcissistic man who is wedded to a cynical, xenophobic, and authoritarian agenda, words such as McCain’s, coming from a senior Republican Senator and a former Presidential candidate, represent an important intervention. Through his words McCain is articulating real fissures within the Republican party that can hopefully widen. He is also standing up to the bullying of Trump, who is bullying all too many people. It matters that McCain chose this occasion to make this particular speech, and that it is receiving attention, and that it is thus laying down a marker in the broader political fight against Trumpism. I think this is important in a human and a moral sense. But I am thinking mainly about politics here. There are a great many things about McCain’s politics with which I strongly disagree, especially his hawkish positions on Iran and North Korea — and it is indeed on these issues that I believe the greatest imminent danger currently lies. Nonetheless, it is politically important that McCain chooses now to make this speech, even as Trump is moving in a hawkish direction on Iran and North Korea. For it suggests that certain things are more important to McCain than policy (even as he clearly believes that Trump’s hawkish moves involve no real policy), things like freedom. Further, while McCain’s appeals to bipartisanship ring somewhat hollow, their audibility is magnified by the current mess. And McCain’s consistent calls for a “return to regular order” represent an important counter to Trump’s authoritarian presidency.

And this leads me to my second reason for welcoming McCain’s speech: the clarity with which he articulated what can only be described as a robust civic nationalism:

We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil. We are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad. We have done great good in the world. That leadership has had its costs, but we have become incomparably powerful and wealthy as we did. We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we don’t. We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to.

The self-congratulatory Wilsonianism of these words is obvious, and I will return to them momentarily. But here too, it is important to note that, the actual depredations of Wilsonianism aside, there is a genealogical difference between a Wilsonian rhetoric of “making the world safe for democracy” and a rhetoric of “blood and soil.” McCain clearly speaks the language of the Declaration of Independence, and of Lincoln, Wilson, and FDR (and, yes, of Reagan, Clinton, Bush and Obama) at a time when our current President, like too many antiliberal leaders, speaks the language of Charles Lindbergh, Julius Evola, Mussolini and Hitler. While Trump speaks of “this American carnage” and consistently incites a cult of American victimhood, McCain insists that American globalism, while it has its “costs,” has also made the country “incomparably powerful and wealthy.” This is not the violent, neo-fascist rhetoric of “rising from the ashes.” It is the rhetoric of global responsibility. It is self-righteous to be sure, and it supports policies that I oppose. But it supports these policies in way that is consistent with a broader set of real arguments about how the U.S., as a liberal democracy, can best advance human rights, and best orient its foreign policy.

McCain is a neoconservative. But he is not a neo-fascist. And that difference matters, especially now. It matters to heroic democratic activists in places like Russia, Ukraine, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, Hungary, Poland, and China. It matters to refugees, and immigrants, who prefer the discourse of “human rights” to the discourse of “America first.” And it matters to U.S. citizens, even citizens on the left, who can recognize McCain as a political opponent but not as a would-be-tyrant.

And that is the third and perhaps most important reason why I welcome McCain’s speech: because it enacts certain values, minimal to be sure, that define a liberal, constitutional democracy and that distinguish it from illiberal and indeed anti-liberal alternatives. McCain speaks the language of citizenship and not the language of “enemies of the people.” He represents a policy perspective that with which I strongly disagree and that I strongly oppose in almost all respects. Almost. For we agree on this: liberal democracy is something worth defending. For most of my personal and professional life as a political scientist, this did not seem like much. For I, like most of my peers, took it for granted. It was the premise of our strenuous criticism of virtually everything existing. But it is a premise no longer. It is, instead, a value under siege. John McCain is neither the only nor the best representative of this value. But he defends it nonetheless. And that is something worth welcoming.

Also for you:

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Previous post

Subverting the Symbols of White Supremacy

Next post

The Infant King and Washington's Tripartite Soul