Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

McCain’s victory speech

Is here. It’s an impressive effort that draws characteristically conservative contrasts with his opponents (the Democrats, I mean). For instance,

[The American people] don’t send us to Washington to take more of their money, and waste it on things that add not an ounce to America’s strength and prosperity; that don’t help a single family realize the dreams we all dream for our children; that don’t help a single displaced worker find a new job, and the security and dignity it assures them; that won’t keep the promise we make to young workers that the retirement they have begun to invest in, will be there for them when they need it. They don’t send us to Washington to do their job, but to do ours; to do it better and with less of their money.

But the speech needs to be better, I think, in articulating the relationship between "principle" and "interest." The first line of the paragraph whose conclusion I quoted reads:

The American people don’t send us to Washington to serve our self-interest, but to serve theirs.

This is too sober and pedestrian, not just for a man whose bread-and-butter is the self-sacrificial nature of his biography, but for a leader who thinks we face a civilizational challenge and a candidate who will likely face a stirring, albeit largely vacuous,
"idealist." This is more like it:

[W}e face no enemy, no matter how cruel; and no challenge, no matter how daunting, greater than the courage, patriotism and determination of Americans. We are the makers of history, not its victims.

But people don’t "make history" and face down daunting challenges in the name of self-interest. (I take that [partially] back: obviously someone with a thoroughly materialist view of history--a Marxist, say--would argue that self-interest makes history. But McCain is surely not one of "them.")

The closest McCain comes to addressing the question I’ve raised is here:

My hope for our country resides in my faith in the American character, the character which proudly defends the right to think and do for ourselves, but perceives self-interest in accord with a kinship of ideals, which, when called upon, Americans will defend with their very lives.

But I’m not sure what it means to "perceive self-interest in accord with a kinship of ideals." Does this mean that we conceive our interests in terms of our ideals? Does it mean that we’re united by our ideals? Perhaps this helps:

When I was a young man, I thought glory was the highest ambition, and that all glory was self-glory. My parents tried to teach me otherwise, as did the Naval Academy. But I didn’t understand the lesson until later in life, when I confronted challenges I never expected to face.

In that confrontation I discovered that I was dependent on others to a greater extent than I had ever realized, but that neither they nor the cause we served made any claims on my identity. On the contrary, I discovered that nothing is more liberating in life than to fight for a cause that encompasses you, but is not defined by your existence alone.


I do not seek the presidency on the presumption that I am blessed with such personal greatness that history has anointed me to save my country in its hour of need. I seek the presidency with the humility of a man who cannot forget that my country saved me. I am running to serve America, and to champion the ideas I believe will help us do what every American generation has managed to do: to make in our time, and from our challenges, a stronger country and a better world.

How the principles or ideals are different from "America" remains hard to tell. I’m left wishing for a reference, at least, to the Declaration of Independence or the Gettysburg Address, that latter of which certainly would give McCain language in which to discuss the sense of sacrifice he feels in his bones.

His peroration doesn’t help matters:

I intend to do that by fighting for the principles and policies I believe best serve the interests of the American people: for a government that takes and spends less of your money and competently discharges its responsibilities; that shows a proper respect for our rights and values; that provides a strong and capable defense; that encourages the enterprise and ingenuity of individuals, businesses and families, who know best how to advance America’s economy, and secure the dreams that have made us the greatest nation in history.

Our "rights and values," our "dreams," are expressions of our interests. The most you can say for this is that McCain is the apostle of self-interest properly understood. This isn’t bad, but it isn’t enough, as Tocqueville recognized. The great Frenchman recognized the reductionism, and hence the inadequacy, of this self-understanding. Let’s hope that McCain, and his speechwriters, can do the same.

Discussions - 5 Comments

Joe, these are lucent and important observations. Thank you for them. You are absolutely correct that McCain needs to step it up a notch. About that, I am a little more critical than you are. I think the phrase, "perceive self-interest in accord with a kinship of ideals," is one of the most convoluted, pedestrian and uninspiring lines I've read in a long time. Who the h** is going to take the time to unpack that box of baloney? He's going after Obama with that kind of clumsy formulation? Please! The best that can be said about it is that it demonstrates somebody around him is thinking on the right track in terms of ideas--but as you point out; even so, it is incomplete. But, perhaps even more important, it shows (apparently) that nobody around McCain can write a lick. This is crazy. Fire the speechwriters and recruit some new talent! Our side of the aisle has some of the best and wittiest writers going. Doesn't anyone in the McCain camp have enough imagination to find and recruit some of them?

American "ideals," not truths. A "cause" that goes beyond one's self. Progress. The American Dream. "OUR rights and values." Dreams, causes, ideals, and values. American ones, that is. Principles. The ones that serve our interests, that is.

Joe's on the right track.

For example:

"Kinship of Ideals" v. "Mystic Chords of Memory"

Seriously, this isn't that hard.

The most you can say for this is that McCain is the apostle of self-interest properly understood

Sounds to me like straight up Locke. Not that I'm praising it, but I would think Joe and Julie would be appreciative.

I'm aware of the limitations of Locke. Locke was aware of the limitations of Locke, which is why he adopted religious window-dressing. McCain is at least honest enough not to go that route.

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