Elegy to a Flawed Man?
Remembering Senator John McCain
John McCain was a flawed man who was also a leading conservative Republican. And any honest assessment of his life must account for both of these things: his personal flaws, and the injustices associated with his ideological leanings and political choices.
But does this mean that it is wrong, or foolish, to show some human respect for his passing? Or some political appreciation for his public service? Or express some gratitude for the unique (if flawed) role he played in American politics since the election of Trump?
To my left friends who seem to think the answer is “yes,” I am curious about something.
You have long extolled the virtues of Bernie, yes? What do you make of the fact that Bernie Sanders Tweeted this in response to McCain’s death: “John McCain was an American hero, a man of decency and honor and a friend of mine. He will be missed not just in the U.S. Senate but by all Americans who respect integrity and independence. Jane and I send our deepest condolences to his family.”
You are all pumped about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, yes? What do you make of the fact that this incredibly impressive young woman Tweeted this (one more reason why I am enthusiastic about her): “John McCain’s legacy represents an unparalleled example of human decency and American service. As an intern, I learned a lot about the power of humanity in government through his deep friendship with Sen. Kennedy. He meant so much, to so many. My prayers are with his family.”
What does it mean that two of the most serious and inspirational politicians of the democratic left – who indeed publicly identify as democratic socialists – have publicly articulated such thoughtful, compassionate, and gracious comments?
Does it mean that now they are hacks? Please note that these expressions of condolence are seamlessly interwoven with strong commitments to all the things you support. They have not stopped being leftists by being nice. Somehow, these two imagine that they can be democratic socialists and still articulate and enact a kind of democratic civility. Or maybe theirs is an “agonistic respect” that would lead people who are harsh critics of a politician to also say something nice when that adversary dies of brain cancer?
It is very revealing, and important, that Ocasio-Cortez references what she learned as an intern. Apparently, this wonderful candidate for Congressional office learned that she will have to share the Congress with political adversaries, that she will sometimes have to work with them, or at least interact with them in a civil and perhaps even friendly way. It is easy to stand on the outside, removed from a situation, and judge those immersed. But to engage a situation, to work in that situation, to try to expand the space of possibility in the situation – this is hard. It is also human. Slogans don’t get you very far. It is dealing with others, learning about them, that becomes necessary. And you learn that some people are awful and evil, and others are decent and well-intentioned and simply disagree with you strongly.
I think it bodes well for the democratic left that leaders like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez have some tact, some public decency and some class. That’s right, I said it. They are classy human beings. I admire that. Their gracious statements are not a stain on an otherwise ideologically pure platform or an unfortunate expression of bourgeois sentimentality or delusional civic virtue. They are signs of serious political commitment and seriousness about democratic citizenship in a pluralist society. And these signs are among the reasons why these politicians are so worthy of support.
Jeffrey Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bllomington.