The Importance of John McCain
John Sidney McCain died on August 25th. At his funeral ceremony in the Washington National Cathedral, he was honored by tributes from past Presidents of both parties, among many others. His passing is a great loss to the United States and the world, partly because there does not appear anyone on the national political scene that could replace him.
McCain is the son and grandson of 4-star admirals, so service to country was part of his moral code. McCain will be specifically remembered for two attributes that are currently in short supply in Washington D.C.: solution-oriented pragmatism and enlightened patriotism. On domestic issues McCain was called a maverick because of his willingness to periodically go against Republican Party positions, and because of his willingness to work with Democrats to achieve solutions to difficult problems. As an example of the former, he famously voted against the Republican replacement for Obamacare in 2017. As examples of the latter he worked with Democrats to solve long term issues, such as campaign reform and illegal immigration. On these issues McCain believed that negotiated solutions were more important than ideological purity, and that not solving our chronic problems was ultimately dangerous to our survival as a democracy. Extremists on both sides of the aisle apparently do not see this danger.
In foreign affairs McCain was often accused of being a warmonger because he frequently advocated American military intervention in global hot spots. However, McCain was not a military intervention advocate because he gloried in war. He personally suffered from the horrors of war as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese from 1967 to 1973. Instead, McCain was an advocate because he apparently grasped two fundamental facts about democracy. In the globally interconnected world of the 21st Century, the fate of American democracy is tied to the fate of global democracy. If global democracy expands, American democracy survives and prospers. If global democracy declines, American democracy is threatened. Secondly, McCain was aware of a seemingly inconsistent fact: global democracy is expanded by war leading to freedom, rather than by peace leading to freedom. This observation is verified by democracy timeline charts maintained by nonpartisan organizations that track global democracy. Since 1800 the greatest expansions of global democracy occurred as a result of the WWII democratic victory in 1945, and as a result of the combined democratic military and economic victory in the Cold War in 1991.
Underlying McCain’s foreign policy positions was his understanding of the psychology of dictators, which our two most recent presidents apparently do not understand. McCain understood that dictators do not voluntarily give up their power for any reason other than force. Therefore only when dictators are defeated by force, either by internal violent revolution or by external military action, is there any chance for freedom and democracy to expand. Our own Revolution exemplifies the point: our democracy started with the violent overthrow of British rule.
McCain was an advocate of American Exceptionalism, a political philosophy that states that the purpose of the United States is to expand global democracy. Unfortunately American Exceptionalism has been in bad repute since George W. Bush’s disastrous 2003 overreach in Iraq. The timing of this political stigmatization is especially bad because aggressive dictators are on the rise. Putin, Xi and Kim perceive that the United States is no longer an effective leader of the free world, that no other democracy has stepped into the leadership role, and therefore that this is their chance to expand their global reach. We need a new advocate of American Exceptionalism, hopefully a younger person with an understanding of American history and therefore of our global responsibilities. American Exceptionalism, despite superficial interpretation of the phrase, is not about American selfishness or dominance. Instead it has been a policy of service to the world, a policy that we have been enacting since 1941. Now however, it’s no longer just about service to others- it’s also about our own freedom.