Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The last great conservative

John McCain spent his life learning from his own mistakes, which is something we should all strive to emulate argues Progress digital assistant Joe Cox

On Monday morning a senior aide and friend of John McCain, Rick Davies, took to the podium in the Senate press room to read late senator’s final statement. Contained in that statement was a sentiment that he had come to champion in his last few years of public office – the sentiment that America is ‘the world’s greatest republic. A nation of ideals, not of blood and soil.’

McCain may have not been our politics, but it is clear he represented something that it is easy to feel that we’ve lost in our polity – a belief that representatives are public servants; that they should put their constituents’ interests above their own.

From the actions of those such as Mitch McConnell in the United States, who acted in bad faith for years in order to undermine Barack Obama’s presidency, to members of the Commons who abused their parliamentary expenses, we have lost all sense of trust in our leaders. The danger is, when people stop trusting politics, they stop engaging in it. This is not just dangerous for political parties, but for the institution of democracy itself. We cannot reverse this simply by removing our most corrupt politicians, we must also replace them with committed public servants, people like John McCain.

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McCain’s greatest legacy – and his greatest lesson – were not his good decisions but his worst.

McCain did not just vote for the Iraq war – he openly cheered it. Yet, as with many of his other decisions, he was unafraid to admit he was wrong and apologise for the consequences of his actions. In 1989, when he was one of five senators investigated by the ethics committee in relation to political lobbying, he did more than just issue an apology, he made it his life’s mission to campaign to reduce the impact of donations by lobbyists on American politics.

Even when it came to arguably his worst decision – nominating Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008, he recognised and vocalised his regret. At campaign rallies in the closing days of the election he would directly contradict the words of his running mate, rebuking audience members for racially-motivated and unfair attacks on his opponent, Barack Obama. If there is one thing that we can learn from the life of John McCain it is that everyone makes mistakes, apologies only matter if they are followed by action, and, crucially, that it’s okay – and can even be principled – to change your mind.

As well as accepting his mistakes, McCain often stood up to his party when he felt that they were wrong. In 2017 he voted against repealing Obamacare, ensuring ensured that the Republicans lost and Obamacare remained in place. Although he was an opponent of the Affordable Care Act, he understood that the provision it provided for millions of families to access affordable medical insurance was non-negotiable, and that a vote to repeal it on ideological grounds without a replacement agreed, would be wrong.


Perhaps most telling of all in the days following his passing is not who has spoken favourably of him, but those who have spoken unfavourably, or in one very particular case, have refused to speak at all. It took Donald Trump days to respond to McCain’s passing, releasing a statement after public outcry, and held out against flying the White House flag at half-mast in his honour for a number of days.

Aside from the obvious truth that being disliked by Trump is not necessarily a bad thing, there is a much more fundamental rift between the president and the statesman. Trump’s entire electoral strategy is based on a new – worse – kind of politics. Chief Trump strategists like Roger Stone talk openly about their disdain for democracy, and his election was based not on winning the arguments, but on a building a coalition based on distrust and dissatisfaction with the the democratic status quo. This is why Trump saw McCain as an enemy on the Hill – not because of a vote on a specific policy issue, but because McCain’s life was an example that you can be both a politician and a morally sound person – an idea that is anathema to Trump’s politics.

It is easy for those of us on the left to demonise our opponents. Yet, with McCain’s passing we are once again challenged to rise above the hateful and divisive rhetoric of the patriot and the traitor; the loyal and the disloyal. We may wish for opponents who exemplify the worst of modern politics, but the reality is that our democracy only works when all those who take part in it do so respectfully and when we can foster compromise between people who disagree.

I am glad that John McCain was never president, and I hope that people with his politics will always lose the argument, but I wish more people with his values were present on the other side. He always sought to do what he thought was right, put country before party and values before politics, and if every seat in every chamber was filled with people who treated debate and democracy like he did, this world would be a better place.

As with the passing of any great statesman, the race is now on from all sides of the political spectrum to define his life and what he stood for. Regardless of how that plays out, I just hope that we can begin to learn from McCain’s life as he so often did himself.


Joe Cox is digital assistant at Progress. He tweets @JosephLCox


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Joe Cox

Joe Cox is digital assistant at Progress

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