John McCain

Existence Precedes Essence


Mark Schmitt starts this article by arguing that John McCain is "a worthy heir to Barry Goldwater's Senate seat." That isn't what's interesting about the piece, though—the good part comes when he moves beyond debating McCain's political views and starts asking how much those views matter:

I'm really tired of all these discussions about whether McCain, or any politician, is "really" a moderate or a conservative or anything else. I don't like the whole mode of analysis that assumes a politician has some "real" core of beliefs and then various positions he or she takes are either "real" or "political." That whole analysis is based on the cult of authenticity of which McCain, and to a lesser extent Bush, have been the greatest beneficiaries.

Politicians are aggregations of their instincts, values, and political circumstances and conditions, the pressures put on them and the niches that are available. (For example, there's no niche in the Republican presidential primary field for an independent moderate or a pro-choice candidate, and so McCain is simply not going to be either of those things, whatever his inner core is.) And that's not totally inappropriate in a democracy, where people are elected to represent and serve the public. Consider that even on a deeply moral issue, capital punishment, many moderate Democratic politicians who probably were instinctively uncomfortable with the death penalty nonetheless found a way to live with it in the 80s and 90s. Obviously, people grow up with instincts and values and experiences that shape their general view of the world, but within those worldviews, there's a lot of room for various policy positions in response to external pressures and circumstances and opportunities.

Schmitt also notes that "'authenticity' is an important political tool in its own right. And voters are malleable as well, supporting a political candidate they view as genuine, even if the candidate's views differ greatly from their own, as I discovered in New Hampshire in 2000 where some number of independent, socially liberal voters chose to vote for the hot McCain in the Republican primary over Bill Bradley in the Democratic."

Reason's Charles Paul Freund looked at the political function of "authentic" identities here and here.

NEXT: I'm A Loser, Baby, So Why'd You Elect Me?

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  1. Hmm. I agree that the search for authenticity is a bit childish.

    However, the same question comes to mind here as when I hear charges of so and so being an ideologue. What is the correct basis for choosing an elected representative if we remove adherence to ideology from the table?

    Well, say some, you look for someone who is just smart and ‘reality based’. Uhh. Okay. That seems to mean either baldly populist or having an ideology that matches theirs – since of course everything they believe is reality based.

    With ideology and realism off the table, I’m left with policies. A good politician actively and effectively (oops, there go the Libertarians)supports policies I like, and that is all.

  2. I think the problem is that voters don’t want to think of their own ideas as controversial. People like to think of themselves as “sensible”, and therefore that the only reasons there’s controversy about their ideas are corruption and exploitation of divisiveness. They see someone else who appears, so far, to be reasonable, they project their thoughts onto hir. Later, to avoid cognitive dissonance, they may think of the ideas of an elected official they’d voted for as their own, unless that official turns out to have been “bought off”, or some other excuse for having turned sour.

    Honest disagreement seems to be particularly uncomfortable for women to acknowledge.

  3. The search for authenticity is oxymoronic.

    McCain just strikes me as dictator material. And he’s insane from his stay with the VK. No question about that.

  4. There are some good points there, but the problem is that I like to have at least some idea of what I’m voting for. If the politician is just a helpless reed in the wind of public opinion, you have no idea what you’re getting for your vote.

  5. Most of the political ads I’ve seen this season focus on the candidate’s small-town, heartland values and how they’re “one of us”; ready to fight for the little guy. They want to be an authentic good-guy so badly they’ll say and do anything to create that appearance. The voters are Yossarian.

    Lt. Col. Korn, XO: [speaking to Yossarian] All you have to do is be our pal.
    Colonel Cathcart: Say nice things about us.
    Lt. Col. Korn, XO: Tell the folks at home what a good job we’re doing. Take our offer Yossarian.
    Colonel Cathcart: Either that or a court-martial for desertion.

  6. If the politician is just a helpless reed in the wind of public opinion, you have no idea what you’re getting for your vote.

    I’d think I’m getting “a helpless reed in the wind of public opinion” but maybe I’m just dumb.

    I think what we’re looking for is a principled person. “I’m searching for authenticity” sounds, like, SO DISINGENUOUS.

    authenticity : principled :: self-esteem :: self-respect

  7. Robert,

    they project their thoughts onto hir.

    Is that a typo or an ingenious attempt to combine him and her? I don’t usually like PC stuff, but I do get sick of writing/typing him/her all the time.

  8. Ironically, in a way you could say what politics requires is a candidate that doesn’t give a fuck what anyone else thinks…

  9. crimethink, I’ve got it, we’ll use hirm. Perfect because it sounds like hermaphrodite.

  10. crimethink,

    The old rule that uses “him” for either known-male or sex-unknown isn’t fair to men, because it gives women their own pronoun while forcing men to share theirs. As a result, people tend to think of women as special and men as commonplace.

    Over time, such sexist language is what causes women to have such longer lifespans than men.

    But go ahead and use the old rule anyway. We’re men. We can buck up and move on.

  11. Todd Fletcher,

    But what if you have a friend named Herm?

    I’ll just stick to using they, and ignore the fact that I’m substituting a plural for a singular.

  12. I didn’t coin “hir”, but like to popularize it. I’ve seen “hirm” before too, as well as its suggestion of “hermaphrodite”, but I prefer “hir” for being a letter shorter. I also use “s/he” and find “SHe” ugly.

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