McCain's Moral Equivalent of War

Supporters of Arizona Sen. John S. McCain had a tough time last night at the IOP. As returns from the Super Tuesday primaries flashed on screen, McCainiacs felt less than super. By all accounts the McCain enthusiasts at the IOP were the most spirited of the lot, although the real zealots were elsewhere, hobnobbing at the campaigns' election night parties.

On a Tuesday night on the cusp of midterm season, the IOP was full. Despite widespread reports of disillusionment with politics, it's not unusual for college students to become involved in presidential campaigns with a youthful passion that brings others' apathy into striking relief. In the crowds at election night parties, one finds rosy-cheeked co-eds and would-be politicos cheering for candidates who could not possibly merit such unflagging devotion. And the most curious thing of all: whether election night means concession or celebration, indeed whether their candidate is a winner or a bumbler, a reliable crowd of rowdy students is always there.

But there is something different about McCain's student supporters. Their cheeks are rosier, their cheering louder, their rowdiness rowdier. And it's not obvious why this is so. Gore and Bradley promise the most money for higher education, Bush is the youngest and (arguably) most charming, and Alan Keyes is, well, Alan Keyes. McCain, meanwhile, is a stodgy veteran who, like Grandpa at the fireplace, never stops talking about "when I was your age…"

In a recent article in The Weekly Standard, David Brooks offered an explanation for McCain's odd rapport with the young. McCain is the anti-boomer, wrote Brooks: He appeals directly to the elderly ("The Greatest Generation") and to their grandchildren, but cares not so much for everyone in between. McCain favors self-sacrifice to immediate gratification, frugality to indulgence, prudence to pleasure. Self-gratifying boomers are personae non gratis.

Part of McCain's appeal to college students, then, has to do with his gentle contempt for their parents: his rhetoric is, in part, meant to cause something of a Thermidorian Reaction against the ever-indulgent boomers. Rebelling against rebellion is a difficult trick, but with a clever slight of hand a skilled leader can rouse the rabble under the flag of prudence.

And much of McCain's rhetoric is addressed directly to the young. When announcing his candidacy, he declared, "I run for President because I want the next generation of Americans to know the sense of pride and purpose of serving a cause greater than themselves." And, in a graduation speech at Johns Hopkins University: "I wish for you the discovery that while the pleasures and vanities of youth prove ephemeral, something better can endure until our last moment on earth. And that is the love we give and the honor we earn when we sacrifice with others for a cause greater than our self-interest."

McCain often speaks of prudence (for instance, when he talks about social security and taxes), but the hallmark of his "New Patriotic Challenge" is not so much prudence as heroism--the willingness to sacrifice, to suffer pain, even to die, for a worthy cause. Heroism is most closely associated with war, and references to war run throughout McCain's rhetoric--not only with regard to himself and "The Greatest Generation," but to faith, party politics and most everything else.

McCain, at bottom, is concerned with an old problem, addressed eloquently by William James a little less than a century ago: How can a nation preserve the martial virtues--McCain's "selfless devotion to a cause"--during peacetime? Or, as James put it: Whence comes a moral equivalent of war?

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