John McCain courted controversy recently with a new campaign slogan that some saw as a thinly veiled attack on Barack Obama’s eclectic background and upbringing. I don’t know if that interpretation is right, but McCain’s new tagline sounds like something out of Team America or Steven Colbert: “The American President Americans Have Been Waiting For” (And So Can You!).
Less ridiculous, and perhaps more unsettling, are McCain’s repeated appeals to “a cause greater than self-interest,” and his attacks on “cynicism,” which, as a determined cynic, I take very personally.
In his speeches, McCain periodically sneers at American opulence and suggests that leaving Americans alone to pursue their own visions of happiness is a narrow and ignoble goal for government. As I point out in my new book The Cult of the Presidency, that’s a common sentiment among the American intelligentsia, and one that’s been used repeatedly to concentrate power in the executive branch:
Like intellectuals the world over, many American pundits and scholars, right and left, view bourgeois contentment with disdain. Normal people appear to like “normalcy,” Warren Harding’s term for peace and prosperity, just fine. But all too many professional thinkers look out upon 300 million people living their lives by their own design and see something impermissibly hollow in the spectacle.
McCain’s campaign speeches reflect that theme. Here he is in a recent speech at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, telling his audience that if you “sacrifice for a cause greater than yourself, [you’ll] invest your life with the eminence of that cause, your self-respect assured.” Here he is on his campaign webpage, insisting that “each and every one of us has a duty to serve a cause greater than our own self-interest.”
I’m not a Randian, so I’m not inclined to condemn this stuff as whim-worshipping altruism. In the abstract, I agree with the statement that when you turn away from your own self-interest, narrowly construed, and adopt a higher purpose than your own pleasure (which purpose need not, and ought not, have anything to do with service to the state), you’re likely to end up a happier person. But why is any of this McCain’s business? The president is supposed to be a limited constitutional officer, not a national life coach-cum-self-help guru.
Making the case for “a cause greater” in the Naval Academy speech, McCain declared that
when healthy skepticism sours into corrosive cynicism our expectations of our government become reduced to the delivery of services. And to some people the expectations of liberty are reduced to the right to choose among competing brands of designer coffee.
Oh my, not “designer coffee”! The reflexive contempt for peace and prosperity McCain displays here is the essence of National Greatness Conservatism, and, as Matt Welch has pointed out in Myth of a Maverick, his devastating critique of the Arizona senator, John McCain is to National Greatness Conservatism as Barry Goldwater was to conservatism proper: the electoral standard bearer for the philosophy.
In his book, Welch quotes a May 1999 commencement address McCain gave at Johns Hopkins University, warning that America was threatened by a “pervasive public cynicism” toward government “as dangerous in its way as war and depression have been in the past.” In the same speech McCain mused, “With every new Dow Jones record, something gnaws at my conscience that we should not be lulled into unfeeling contentment.” (There’s a bright side to our current economic woes I guess: McCain’s conscience is spared that old gnawing feeling.)
McCain’s sometime ideological guru and op-ed page cheerleader, David Brooks, expresses similar themes in his writings. Even in Bobos in Paradise, Brooks’s foray into “comic sociology,” he warns darkly of “the temptations that accompany affluence.” “The fear is that America will decline not because it overstretches, but because it enervates as its leading citizens decide that the pleasures of an oversized kitchen are more satisfying than the conflicts and challenges of patriotic service.” (As a young man, Brooks served abroad with the Wall Street Journal Europe.)
Designer coffee, oversized kitchens, Belgian beer, and iPods–you might embrace such things because they make life more pleasant, but as Brooks and McCain point out, that’s precisely the problem. These products of prosperity are the lures that plague us, the temptations that make us soft and weak, that keep us from true National Greatness.
What can we Bobos do to make ourselves tougher, to save ourselves from the wonderful distractions capitalism continually creates? John McCain provided an answer in a little-noticed article in the Washington Monthly, written shortly after 9/11. In it, McCain called for a quasi-militarized domestic national service corps as a way to address a “spiritual crisis in our national culture.” What Senator McCain envisioned was, well, rather creepy–a sort of jackbooted Politics of Meaning.
McCain praised City Year, an AmeriCorps initiative operating in 13 cities: “City Year members wear uniforms, work in teams, learn public speaking skills, and gather together for daily calisthenics, often in highly public places such as in front of city hall.” He also endorsed the National Civilian Community Corps, “a service program consciously structured along military lines,” in which enrollees “not only wear uniforms and work in teams… but actually live together in barracks on former military bases.” McCain calls for expanding these two initiatives and “spread[ing] their group-cohesion techniques to other AmeriCorps programs.”
“Group cohesion” and calisthenics in front of city hall reflect a version of patriotism, to be sure, albeit one that seems more North Korean than American. But all in all, the article provides further evidence of Welch’s claim that McCain has an essentially “militaristic conception of citizenship.”
Some have compared McCain to JFK, and there’s something to that comparison. But Milton Friedman said everything that needs to be said about the notion that service to the state ought to be the lodestar of presidential politics. In Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman wrote that neither half of JFK’s “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” “expresses a relation between the citizen and his government that is worthy of the ideals of free men in a free society.” As Friedman put it:
To the free man, the country is the collection of individuals who compose it, not something over and above them. He is proud of a common heritage and loyal to common traditions. But he regards government as a means, an instrumentality, neither a grantor of favors and gifts, nor a master or god to be blindly worshipped and served. He recognizes no national goal except as it is the consensus of the goals that the citizens severally serve. He recognizes no national purpose except as it is the consensus of the purposes for which the citizens severally strive.
All of which gives us another reason to admire Milton Friedman: before National Greatness Conservatism was invented, Friedman was against it.
[cross-posted from genehealy.com]