John McCain’s daughter, Meghan McCain, called her father’s funeral a few days ago nothing less than the passing of the “American greatness” that he represented, in contrast to the “cheap rhetoric” that now characterises US affairs.
But what lesson does America need to draw from the life of McCain in terms of the current state of its democracy.
She was right in that his death did represent a symbolic departure from a classic depiction of American greatness – a classic republicanism, a form of rhetoric that emphasised a civic duty to uphold republican virtue. That notion of American duty is rooted in spreading values of liberty and rights across the globe. It was a ‘project’ that stressed America’s unique place in history.
And if America can be said to have (or have had) a dominant political ideology since its conception, this would be it. That vision of American greatness was on display last week in McCain’s funeral, providing a stark contrast with the Trumpian mythos of individualism and American carnage.
Famously, there was no mention of Trump at McCain’s funeral, but the event was a statement of everything that Trump isn’t: a bi-partisan “civic communion” in the words of David Axelrod, former adviser to Barack Obama.
As has been noted in the last ten days repeatedly, McCain was a complex figure and a flawed politician, but towards the end of his life his mission became vested in articulating this foundational vision of American greatness, in radical opposition to what it has become.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
In his “farewell statement” McCain wrote:
“Our identities and sense of worth are not circumscribed but are enlarged by serving good causes bigger than ourselves.”
“We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic. A nation of ideals, not blood and soil. We are blessed and a blessing to humanity when we uphold and advance those ideals at home and in the world.”
In his Liberty Medal Speech in October 2017, McCain called upon God to:
“…give us the strength and wisdom, the generosity and compassion, to do our duty for this wondrous land, and for the world that counts on us. With all its suffering and dangers, the world still looks to the example and leadership of America to become, another, better place. What greater cause could anyone ever serve.”
Obama reflected on McCain’s vision of American greatness in his eulogy last weekend: “While John and I disagreed on all kinds of foreign policy issues, we stood together on America’s role as the one indispensable nation, believing that with great power and great blessings, comes great responsibility.”
McCain was not a founder of the republican discourse that dominated political life – it is rather a common weal from which the whole range of America’s social and cultural institutions gain vitality and legitimacy. That picture of America’s ‘manifest destiny’ and civic duty was once all-pervasive: from Reagan’s statement “we come to Berlin, we American Presidents, because it’s our duty to speak in this place of freedom” in his Brandenburg Gate speech, to the Scouts’ Address which stresses that the scouts owe “duty” to their “God” and “country.”
And McCain should not be lauded because he is an unblemished figure, or a man of perfect politics, but because he made it his mission to articulate a vision of American greatness that he saw slipping away.
Machiavelli in praising this republican virtue that McCain so emphatically endorsed, noted that when the public spirit, civic duty, and republican rhetoric is absent from political life, a republic becomes vulnerable to tyranny and corruption.
As McCain’s funeral fades, and memories dim, that deficiency is the one for Americans to focus on fixing.
Listen to Finn discuss her article through the link below.