John McCain's (Deeply) Political Legacy

On Aug. 25, a little more than two weeks ago, Senator John McCain passed away at the age of 81, succumbing to a devastating form of brain cancer. What followed on social media and in newspaper columns across the country was an overwhelming, albeit predictable, barrage of reactions to a life that, if nothing else, shaped modern American politics like few others.

The vast majority of the reactions I came across lauded McCain’s life as the epitome of service, courage and decency. Voiced by Democrats and Republicans alike, these came mostly from the so-called political establishment. Other reactions, while fewer in number, were highly critical of McCain’s legacy. Some on the left denounced his foreign policy record, while others, from the “Make America Great Again” crowd, criticized his opposition to President Donald Trump.

Regardless of whether one considers his critics to be wrong — and I do —they are right to point out a certain hypocrisy on the part of some of his admirers, who pretend that praising McCain’s public life is an apolitical act. Criticizing McCain is as political as singing his praises. Neither position is objectively true or offensive and that does not make either position right or wrong. Acknowledging that McCain’s praises are political in nature does not negate their validity. It merely asks that those voicing them reject their veneer of objectivity and argue their point without a priori silencing the other side.

McCain’s life was guided by certain core political principles about what America is and what its role in the world should be. Explaining those principles in his farewell statement, he asserted, “I lived and died a proud American. We are citizens of … a nation of ideals, not blood and soil. We are … a blessing to humanity when we uphold and advance those ideals at home and in the world.”

The ideals of which McCain speaks to are themselves inherently political and he, more than anyone else, knew that they need to be constantly reaffirmed. Democracy is one of those ideals. Liberal constitutionalism, which upholds the principle to respect the rights of all people and equality under the law, is another. Those who praised McCain after his death share those values, and that is why their statements were not politically neutral. Democrats like President Barack Obama said they admired McCain despite politics, but they actually admired him because of politics — not the everyday partisan politics of Washington, but the core political ideals that are no less contestable and definitely more important.

To endorse McCain’s values and his view of America is to directly rebuke the current occupant of the White House. Their political choices are as different as they are telling. While President Trump defended some of the white nationalists who marched in Charlottesville as “very fine people,” McCain refused to fan the flames of the Republican base’s racism when he ran for President in 2008, even reprimanding his own supporters on multiple occasions. He also championed immigration reform in the Senate and maligned the “hardening resentment we see towards immigrants,” another sharp contrast with the current President, who has instituted policies separating immigrant children from their parents to pursue his nativist immigration agenda.

McCain also held a strong stance against torture — after experiencing its barbarity himself — whereas Trump campaigned on it. But, most of all, McCain resented the way Trump cozied up to despots like Putin, his warning against “flirting with authoritarianism and romanticizing it as our moral equivalent.” While Trump’s nationalism is based on culture and ethnicity, McCain’s patriotism rested on ideals.

However, the difference between the two men was not merely political, but one of character. The fact that one fought and was tortured for his country, while the other received five draft deferments (the last one for “bone spurs”) and called his effort to avoid STDs his “personal Vietnam” is, again, telling.

But to endorse McCain’s values is also to cast doubt on the beliefs of many on the left, who see no moral distinction between America and its foes and view all efforts to support liberal democratic institutions abroad as manifestations of cultural imperialism. McCain believed that America had a responsibility to liberate people from tyranny around the world. As a senator, he gave voice to freedom fighters from Russia to the Middle East and from Belarus to Myanmar. He also knew that America would not be able to protect her ideals without a strong military. Of course, that belief led him to want to use it too often, the Iraq War debacle being an obvious example.

McCain was imperfect, and he did at times cave to opportunism — but he often recognized his errors publicly, unlike most politicians. I wish America and the world had more leaders in John McCain’s mould. And I also wish those who admire him would embrace his legacy without forgetting that it is, in fact, political.