John McCain’s Legacy: Bipartisan Democracy Hits a Low Point

Former American war hero, presidential candidate and longtime Republican Senator of Arizona John McCain passed away on Saturday, August 25th after his recent battle with brain cancer.  In the days following his death, editorials, statements by other current and former elected officials and coverage of the former senator have been more overwhelmingly positive, as support has poured out from those on both sides of the aisle. McCain will be remembered as an American patriot, imperfect but humble, a man committed to the vision of those American ideals as seen by those that came before him.  

One would hope the passing of such a figure, once held and tortured as a prisoner of war during his days of military service, would not be political. Unfortunately, no matter how much we would like to fool ourselves, no matter how much we would like to sit back and assume our country’s people and representatives are merely arguing in favor of their own best ideas towards forming the same most perfect union—the truth is that McCain’s passing is political, as political as the death of Mollie Tibets or those slain in the shooting in Jacksonville.  McCain’s death is not just the death of a senator or a veteran or a hero. It is the death of an old order which, as a whole, is dying by the day.  Remarks about McCain’s passing echo this very sentiment. The is not just a patriot or a senator or a Republican, but a union of the three that this country is struggling to hold on -to.  McCain is the apex of the principled, compassionate conservative, as told by either how he has become romanticized or by his actual life.  To the traditional conservative, he is the apex of what it means to serve as a Republican. To most Democrats, he is the opposition that one can disagree with, but is forced to respect.  

It is this fundamental understanding at the center of McCain’s legacy, the universal respect, that is fading from American democracy.  Think, for a moment. Who else, military service aside, would provoke a similar bipartisan outpouring of support?  Hillary Clinton, with her many years of service and relatively moderate political stances, never could.  Ted Cruz, with his self-described commitment to his faith and the ideals of this country, never could.  Bernie Sanders, with his uncompromising advocacy for the American worker, never could. Barack Obama, Paul Ryan, Joe Biden, Rand Paul, Chuck Schumer, Mitch McConnell, Elizabeth Warren, Mike Pence, John Lewis—varied resumes with a single theme. None could inspire the country to collectively mourn as they have for John McCain.  His military service is a quite profound part of the explanation for this, but it goes deeper than that. His memory goes beyond his military service and into his public service.  

Maybe the most illustrative part of our country’s reaction is the clip, from his 2008 run for president, of him responding to a woman who called then-Democratic candidate Barack Obama “an Arab”.  The stage was a town hall he hosted in which many voices of the conservative movement were gathered listening and asking questions of McCain.  The woman, influenced by years of nativist propaganda and anti-Obama fears, stuttered and appeared to be choosing her words carefully before eventually coming up with, “I can’t trust Obama, I have read about him, and he’s not … He’s an Arab, he’s not—”.  It was then that McCain cut her off, saying “No ma’am, he’s a decent family man, citizen,” a response that crystallizes the fraught state of affairs we continue to deal with today.  What is important is not just what the woman said, which is objectively untrue —Obama is not an Arab-- but what she implied.  She never finished her question, either because she did not know how to word it or because of her fears that what she was about to say was not politically correct.  Her implication, which she left out, is predicated on our post-9/11 understanding of what it means to be an American patriot.  However she meant to finish the sentence, it is quite likely that she was trying to say that an Arab cannot be a true American, and that Arabs are necessarily un-American. In McCain’s answer, he did not simply refute the obvious, that Obama is not an Arab, but what she implied, that Obama is a good American man.  

In the end, as many great moments in this country, McCain’s response was not in triumph, but in dissent.  Right-leaning newspapers continued to argue that Obama did not have America’s best interests at heart, and McCain ended up losing the election.  Unfortunately, his response was in vain not only for those reasons, but one much deeper and darker at the center of current American discourse.  Put explicitly, the Republican party ended up following the lead shown in that moment, but it was the lead of the woman, not of McCain. McCain is being celebrated not just for what he was, a war hero, a public servant, a defining voice, but, perhaps, more importantly, for what he was not.  McCain is being celebrated as the last great defining character of the right, an ideology which has slipped into hyper-nationalism, nativism and the stoking of anti-POC fears.  Our current discourse is so broken that those on the left criticizing McCain, as Vox did, with its assertation that “you can draw a straight line from John McCain to Donald Trump,” are framed not just as disrespectful of a dead man, which is warranted, but as borderline heretical, despite the truth to the claims.  The death of John McCain is sad in and of itself, but the fact that not being an outright nativist propagandist is the bar that even those on the left have set for conservatives in 2018 reflects our sad state of affairs.