Our Lesson from John McCain

John McCain’s passing has offered an opportunity for everyone who is paying attention or participating in politics to take a step back and perhaps reassess the tone and tenor of our conversations.

The man, who once called Virginia Beach and Oceana Naval Air Station “home”, advises us in his farewell letter:

“We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates. But we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country we will get through these challenging times.”

McCain’s advice is accurate. And it certainly comes as no surprise given that it’s enshrined in our founding documents:

“We the People of the United States” in the US Constitution and “We hold these truths to be self-evident” in our Declaration of Independence.

It has been and always will be about “us.”

So why the dynamic tension?

“The right wing serves as an advocate for hierarchy and the left wing serves as a critic of hierarchy,” states Jordan B. Peterson, author of the best-seller “Twelve Rules for Life”, in his most recent podcast.

He goes on to say that the right sees the hierarchy as necessary, mainly because they are hierarchies of competence, to organize people and society; for order and getting things done. The left sees hierarchies as having the potential for dispossessing people and that we should all be paying attention to the “widows and the orphans”.

“The political discussion, then, is about how to ensure that hierarchies are maintained and are functional but also have sufficient mercy within them to take care of the people who for one reason or another are struggling to find a place, even in the hierarchy of competence.”

In other words, we are all in this together, trying to solve problems in a fair, reasonable manner.

This, however, is why the problem solving cannot be boiled down into a 15-second sound bite or a 280-character tweet.

“Yes we can!” and “Make America Great Again!” might inspire us, but it certainly isn’t public policy, because public policy is hard.

“Health care for all Americans” turns into a bill that we have to pass in order to find out what’s in it and “Build the Wall” becomes a metaphor for Xenophobia.

More to the point, it’s one thing to whine about higher taxes, losing jobs overseas, too many abortions, illegal immigrants, etc. It’s quite another to come up with rational, reasoned solutions.

For example, you can be for free trade, but if it is enacted too quickly, what will happen to the country’s industrial base (just ask Pittsburgh, Akron, or Detroit)? Or, it’s one thing to say your pro-choice, but what about caring for a mother’s lifetime of “what if’s” and regrets?

When we talk about policy, we seem to quickly divide into our corners – our tribes – and forget that the “sausage making” is hard. We want easy, understandable solutions – quickly. Otherwise, regardless of who was yesterday’s fresh voice, they have become today’s establishment hacks.

When it comes to good public policy, egos need to be checked at the door. Lessons have to be learned, by the right and left. And that takes time.

McCain knew this. And he put country first.

Stagnation – like a swamp – is ultimately a breeding ground for revolutionary change. But it is those revolutionary, quick changes that must be avoided due to the damage it will cause.

The pursuit of “a more perfect union” is a noble calling. And change should happen. But the possibility of actually getting there will be ever challenged by our negative human nature.

If, however, there is a critical mass of the community recognizing the seemingly conflicting ideas of order and independence while embracing compassion and restraints on authority, we will truly accomplish great things – together. And America will remain, as it always has been, great.

We have devised a government that is intentionally meant to confound us all. Let’s accept that and actually work to solve the problems, together. If anything, that is what McCain is trying to tell us and the best way to honor his legacy.


This column appears in The Princess Anne Independent News