I had to add Senator John McCain’s floor speech today to my collection of important political speeches. McCain has an incredible work ethic, a devotion to the United States, and particularly a devotion to the United States Senate and its traditions. If you missed it live, read, watch or listen.
In 2010, I wrote that Barack Obama had made an excellent pick for the new Commander of US Central Command, a man who “liked his job killing ‘guys who slap women around for five years.'” Today, again, in the Credit Where It’s Due Department, I have to say that President-elect Trump appears to have made the same excellent choice for Secretary of Defense.
Any number of well known, articulate conservative thinkers have made the case in the last two months for leaving the Republican Party or, in an appropriate nod of respect to a great Republican at such a time, the case why the Republican Party has left them. For most of them, the nomination of Donald J. Trump was sufficient. For me, that was not the tipping point. A party with bad candidates, even a bad candidate at the top of the ticket, is still worth saving if it is committed to the right principles, to timeless shared values. The GOP is not.
Candidates come and go, some good, some bad, some truly awful. The Republican Party has certainly had plenty of grotesque candidates. The last Republican nominee I could enthusiastically support, and even he had his major sins, was George W. Bush. I grudgingly supported John McCain, despite deep reservations. That was worth doing. McCain is, for his faults, a good man, a devoted public servant, and a genuine American hero. He also was often an articulate defender of conservative principles during that election. Mitt Romney was not a great candidate, but in the last six months has proven that he is a man of principle, perhaps more so than any Republican Presidential nominee since Reagan. As Ted Cruz put it, in one of the best speeches on basic conservative principles in recent memory, “We’re fighting not for one particular candidate, or one campaign, but because each of wants to be able to tell our kids and grandkids, our own Caroline’s, that we did our best for their future and our country.”
So, the Trump nomination, while reason to potentially vote for a Democrat for President for the first time in my life, was not sufficient reason to give up on the Party I’ve called home for almost thirty years. His utter ignorance of how government works, aside from spreading bribes to get what you want, left open the hope that he would hire from the ranks of conservative, Republican policy experts. The realistic worst case scenario was that even a Republican Congress would balk at rubber stamping his totalitarian notions. With the overwhelming majority of Republican primary voters voting against Trump, it seemed that the GOP would not enthusiastically adopt the brand of this combination of Wesley Mouch and Buzz Windrip. But they did.
When confronted with the idea that “Freedom matters,” the GOP booed. When confronted with the idea that “Our nation is exceptional because it was built on the five most beautiful and powerful words in the English language, ‘I want to be free,'” the GOP booed. When told that, “We deserve leaders who stand for principle, who unite us all behind shared values,” the GOP booed. When asked to commit to the American people to “defend freedom, and be faithful to the Constitution,” the GOP booed. A bad candidate, even a string of them, is not the end. Cheering for a bad candidate is often part of politics. Jeering the principles we supposedly share, is not. It is proof that the Party has left me.
I am no longer a Republican.
There’s a particular non-argument that those who oppose free trade and reasonable immigration policies fall back on time and again as if it settles everything: “Why even have a country?” (I’ll pass on the easy answer: “You tell me?”) The phrase “Why even have a country?” presupposes that language and borders are more important than values and principles. In fact, values and principles are what have made, and continue to make, America great. Those who want to add a patina of intellectualism fall back on notions of “Westphalian sovereignty” that, for those with any knowledge of the history around the Peace of Westphalia and the US Constitution, are at best irrelevant.
Why even have a country? If the purpose of having a country is shared language, then the country we should be part of is the United Kingdom. The American Revolution was a mistake because shared language trumps fundamental rights. If the purpose of having a country is to respect international borders, I should be living in Mexico. The Texas Revolution was a mistake, because it violated Mexico’s borders. The annexation of Texas by the United States was another one, because borders are more important than the shared values of the two countries that joined.
A country, at least this country, is about much more than borders or language. This country is about a set of shared values. Our country is, hopefully still, a shining city on a hill, ” a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.” If we don’t at least strive for that, I’ll take your “Why even have a country?” and raise you, “Why even build our city on a hill?”
We have a country, or at least a government for the country, to secure our fundamental rights. Among those rights are liberty and property. If government interferes in commerce, other than to protect those rights, it is destructive of the purpose of having a country. When the government itself becomes destructive of those rights, the question is, indeed, “Why even have a country?”
Having had their maudlin emotionalism of the non-argument rebutted with a bit of sentimentality and a dose of logic, the usual fallback position of the populists is that pseudo-intellectual appeal to the Peace of Westphalia. One thing is immediately clear to any serious student of history: Westphalian sovereignty, at least from the passage of the First Amendment to Gitlow v. New York, was never centered in the federal government. The primary reason for the Peace of Westphalia was to settle a series of religious wars and it did so by enacting the principle of cuius regio, eius religio. That is, the sovereign determines the established state religion. In the United States from 1791 to 1925, that was the state governments. “Why even have a country?” Well, for those who honestly want to fall back on Westphalia, the answer is “to have a state religion.”
If the reason to have a country is to protect our cherished principles, to preserve our fundamental rights and to be a shining city on a hill, I’m all in. If the reason to have a country is to restrain trade, limit labor markets, establish state religions, or otherwise trample on those rights and values, I’ll pass.