Here’s a paragraph from Joe Biden’s eulogy of the late John McCain that you need to read:
“You know, I’m sure if my former colleagues who work with John, I’m sure there’s people who said to you, not only now, but the last 10 years, ‘Explain this guy to me,’ right? ‘Explain this guy to me.’ Because, as they looked at him, in one sense they admired him. In one sense, the way things changed so much in America, they look at him as if John came from another age, lived by a different code, an ancient, antiquated code where honor, courage, integrity, duty, were alive. That was obvious, how John lived his life. The truth is, John’s code was ageless, is ageless. When you talked earlier, Grant, you talked about values. It wasn’t about politics with John. He could disagree on substance, but the underlying values that animated everything John did, everything he was, come to a different conclusion. He’d part company with you if you lacked the basic values of decency, respect, knowing this project is bigger than yourself.”
Yes, that is, ostensibly, about McCain. But it is also an indictment of our current politics – and a road map on how we can fix what’s broken.
The prevailing “value” of modern politics is partisanship: You are good if you are on my team. You are not just bad, but morally bankrupt, if you are on the other side. You are real if you are on my team and fake if you aren’t. Anything the captain of my team says can be justified (and agreed with) because, well, they’re the captain of my team. Anything the other team’s captain says is wrong, by default, because they’re the captain of the other team. There’s no reason to listen to people on the other team. Or make friends with them. Or even be seen with them. They aren’t on my team. Why would I do that?
President Donald Trump is the walking, talking epitome of the sanctification of partisanship over all our other, real, values. (Yes, the irony is not lost on me – and should not be lost on you – that the modern patron saint of partisanship is someone who has been, literally, a Democrat, an independent and a Republican all within the last decade or so.) This is a man who has declared, repeatedly, that the mainstream media is the “enemy of the people.” A man who said his Democratic opponent in the 2016 election should be jailed. A man who has called elected officials of his own party who disagreed with him “incompetent,” “weak and ineffective” and “so bad,” among many other things. A man who, while McCain was home in Arizona fighting the brain cancer that eventually killed him, would use the story of McCain voting against health care repeal legislation to symbolize the Arizona senator’s alleged backstabbing. (“One senator decided to put the thumb down,” Trump would say in his standard stump speech. “That was not a good thing.”)
To be clear: Trump doesn’t take this if-you-aren’t-with-me-you’re-against-me view out of any sort of principles. After all, he made his living in the private sector as a deal-maker, someone who always saw compromise as possible – even in the darkest of situations. And as I noted above, Trump has been all over the map in terms of his personal politics. This is not a man wedded to a certain, unwavering view of what’s right in the world.
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Trump has elevated pure, unstinting partisanship into a virtue because it works for him politically. The Republican base was mad as hell at its elected leaders who they believed were all too willing to compromise on core principles. And not just compromise, but compromise badly; conservatives have long believed that Democrats always got the best of Republicans when it came to the sort of last-minute deal-making that Congress made a habit of producing. Compromise as capitulation was a notion within conservative circles before Trump, but he seized the idea and turned it into gospel truth. Even being seen with a member of the opposite party has become enough to draw a Republican incumbent a primary challenge from someone in their home state, insisting that the elected official has “gone Washington” or “come down with Potomac fever” or some other claptrap like that.
Now go back up and read Biden’s words. And these words in particular (bolding is mine):
“It wasn’t about politics with John. He could disagree on substance, but the underlying values that animated everything John did, everything he was, come to a different conclusion. He’d part company with you if you lacked the basic values of decency, respect, knowing this project is bigger than yourself.”
When you read that last sentence, you understand why McCain was so openly critical of Trump, and why Trump disliked McCain in turn. McCain believed in the idea of public service as a noble – flawed, but nonetheless noble – profession. That the reason you got into politics was to find ways to do good, not for yourself but for the broader populace. That the most important lesson to always, always, always remember is that we all have a lot more in common than we have differences on. That focusing on that common humanity was at the essence of how politics should work. It wasn’t about what team you were on. It was about what good you wanted to do – and for whom.
That shared humanity – the sense that we are all, in the end, in this together – hasn’t disappeared.
It can’t disappear because it’s who we, at root, are. What’s wrong is that we just aren’t looking hard enough for it. We are too willing to allow ourselves to be manipulated by people who, for whatever reasons – political and monetary gain, mostly – have a vested interest in focusing on what divides us rather than what unites us.
I’m under no illusion that either McCain’s death (and life) or Biden’s paean to re-find what McCain represented will have any immediate effect on the body politic. It’s easier to retreat into partisan camps and surround yourself with people, TV talkers and the like who tell you that you’re right (about everything) and those who disagree with you are your enemies, villains to be vanquished.
In the end, though, I’m with Biden and McCain. Who we are might get obscured. We might forget. But those are temporary matters. In the end, our eyes will open and our minds will remember.