John McCain: My Father’s Conservative

Back in the 1980’s, when the Reagan Revolution was in full swing, my father and I got into an exchange over some conservative views that I had set forth.  At one point he scolded me, "You just have never really understood where and how conservatives of my generation think," of which he was certainly one.

He was right.  That illustrates part of the dilemma the conservative movement in the U.S. is in: American conservatism needs to be understood in the plural.  We have social conservatives who realise they are an underclass and are prepared to take action based on that, and we have economic conservatives who deny that underclasses even exist.  We have neo-conservatives who would start a war at any challenge and libertarians who wouldn’t start one under any circumstance.  Putting the coalition together and making it work was Ronald Reagan’s genius, and seeing it come apart as it has this year is his successors’ shame.

Now we have the unedifying spectacle of leading American conservatives running about saying that they’d rather vote for Hillary Clinton than John McCain.  Why is this?  Why would they want to vote for the wife of a draft dodger and a left-wing activist in her own right, when they could vote for someone who served his country at no small cost to himself?  Why would they want unified government under the Democrats when they could at least have a shot at something with divided government?

To try to understand the problem, we need to look at one very important thing with John McCain himself: he is a military man, and one of a long line of military men, and Navy men at that.  The Navy is the most traditionally minded of all of the branches of service.  One would expect some kind of conservative to come out of this.  But things are a little more complicated than that.

It’s one of those contradictions of life that, in order to preserve and expand freedom, it’s necessary to sacrifice it first.  Military people give up a wide range of personal freedoms in order to protect and defend our country, which is supposed to represent that freedom.  In theory, the idea is that this exchange is supposed to be temporary for most of the population.

But theory didn’t hold up after World War II, when most men of an entire generation were brought into the military.  For many of them their military years became the defining experience of life, moulding their view of the world around them.  For one thing, it raised their view of government.  Wars are government operations par excellence, and a successful one enhances the view of what they can do.  That’s why, in the years after World War II, two things took place in American life.  The first was that the "Greatest Generation," returning from the battlefield, lost patience and threw out much of the "old-time politics" left over from the 1930’s and before, cleaning up the system.  Sometimes this was violent, as was the case in Athens, TN, in 1946.

The second was that this generation acquiesced in and supported the expansion of government in many ways.  Environment needs cleaning up?  Start the EPA.  Workplace dangerous?  Start OSHA.  Coupled with the many other expansions of government in that era, that explains how "God and country" people could allow government to expand in the way it did.

McCain is a conservative in that sense.  A good example of this is McCain-Feingold.  Many in the Republican party see it as a blow to freedom of speech, which it certainly is.  But it represents an attempt to reduce the influence of money in American politics, which is the same battle that the homecoming heroes from World War II fought.  It never occurs to him that the easiest way to reduce the influence of money is to reduce what money can buy from the government.  (We’re also being entertained by the spectacle of Mike Huckabee’s cleaning Mitt Romney’s clock in many places, which shows that there are other ways to beat the money thing, too.)

It took someone who slightly predated the World War II generation like Ronald Reagan to see that such expansions were counterproductive in the economic sense of the word.  His unleashing of a more laissez-faire environment came at no small cost to parts of the economy, but it facilitated the economic expansions that seem to be finding their "bumps in the road" these days.  They also put the liberals in the doghouse so securely that even Bill Clinton was content to let Robert Rubin and Allan Greenspan run his economy while he took all of the credit.

Ultimately the weakness of conservatives like John McCain is that, while they can say that Boomer economic and social conservatives don’t understand their kind of conservatism, they don’t understand this generation’s kind of liberal, two of which (one more so than the other) are battling for the Democrat nomination.  With their respect for authority (a respect tempered by Celtic rebelliousness that McCain manifests from time to time,) they simply can’t conceive of an American coming into power and wrecking the system from the top.  But that’s what we’re faced with, and all who profess and call themselves conservatives need to wake up to that.  It’s time for a reality check, and to realise that, while my father’s type of conservatism–which John McCain shares in some ways–may have its problems, it’s an improvement over Boomer liberalism.  Boomer conservatives do themselves no credit by refusing to recognise that simple fact.

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