McCain often identifies America’s problems in moral terms as opposed to ideological differences on policy. Is this really the root of political friction? Liberals of good will justify most of their proposed impositions on the market economy with the same language of community, sacrifice, and public spiritedness. For them and McCain too, America is a cause and a project, not just a place, a people, and an extended family. McCain’s defenses of free markets and limited government stand uneasily alongside rhetoric like this:
We have to catch up to history, and we have to change the way we do business in Washington.
The — the constant partisan rancor that stops us from solving these problems isn’t a cause. It’s a symptom. It’s what happens when people go to Washington to work for themselves and not for you. . . .
Our country will be the better, and you will be the happier, because nothing brings greater happiness in life than to serve a cause greater than yourself.
This rhetoric is reminiscent of Ross Perot’s. He was a similarly self-confident figure and an old-fashioned patriot who thought our policy differences could be easily resolved if only people of would abandon their blinders of self-interest. This is a natural enough instinct about personal vocation from McCain, whose entire life has involved government service, including honorable service in the military. But as a diagnosis of what’s wrong with our politics and how to solve them, this formulation seems wrong.
Bush, Clinton, and McCain’s triangulation obscures that there are deep disagreements since the 1960s about core values on issues ranging from free trade and abortion to immigration and the Iraq War. People’s disagreements on these issues, as often as not, do not flow from narrow self-interest so much as disagreements about policy, history, identity, and priorities. After all, self-interest is not why white males like Bill Clinton and Joe Biden support affirmative action or massive destruction of our economy to combat the alleged crisis of global warming.
McCain’s rhetoric, in spite of its superficially unifying character, invites greater conflict and acrimony. His confidence in his own pure motives and the call of history invites crude put-downs of his opponents, which he has indulged in repeatedly, as if folks what want to keep America’s population and demographics stable for cultural reasons are merely a selfish faction.
It’s true, the Democratic Party’s rhetoric often invites narrow self interest: join us and take money from the rich people! But Republican rhetoric does in some respects too: you should keep your money and do what you want with it. It’s better kept with you than the government. While pork barrel spending offends McCain’s sense of national interest, large and expensive government projects, such as “transforming the Middle East” or “defending democracy in Georgia,” do not. He seems a bit blind to the ways even well-meaning government programs can harm our collective interest in being able to pursue our individual goals, plans, and concerns. He also seems not to realize that one man’s pork barrel interest is another’s necessary local project to benefit “his community.” In other words, McCain’s lack of principled conservatism leads to a kind of dissonance in policy and does not equip him to resist calls for grand historical government projects that are exceedingly expensive. Prosaic, but necessary, big cuts in spending on entitlement programs do not appeal to his sense of grandeur and historical mission. For example, nothing in McCain’s view of the world would find anything wrong with the New Deal or the Great Society.
An authentic conservative political vision must acknowledge a few things about our times. While government is not the only problem, it is an impediment. The government has become too big, and its goals are often hostile to civil society’s institutions like private enterprise, religion, and the traditional family. Government is out of control only partly for reasons of narrow self-interest. Indeed, grand altruistic projects based in the “selfless” goal of equality like social security and Medicare cannot be easily reigned in through rooting out corruption. Their problems are structural; we need to make tough choices about priorities and spending and the purpose of government, and those tough choices will require shrinking government rather than expanding its commitments in the name of concern for the public good. McCain’s shown little appreciation for these difficulties the redistributionist agenda imposes on the private sector, partly, no doubt, because he is completely insulated from economic worries and the suffocating impact of taxes and regulation. Finally, in our ethnic politics, everyone is playing by the rules of power and self-interest except for whites. What, after all, is the meaning of groups like the National Council of La Raza or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. McCain, however, to show his own bona fides is silent on affirmative action and repeatedly supports massive amnesty as a grand historical gesture. Unfortunately, amnesty and continued mass immigration will an opening for greater disunity and stress our over-generous welfare state and public health resources. The diminution of America’s traditional majority and leadership class will ultimately lead to a cruder, more Balkanized ethnic politics that we see in corruption-ridden places like Los Angeles and Chicago. If McCain truly cared about America and could somehow connect the dots, he’d realize that keeping this country populated with native-born Americans is part of the formula for having the kind of national political culture he desires.
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