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Dispatch: Where Are the John McCains?


I love John Wood.  He’s become one of my best friends, conservative or liberal, within Braver Angels.  If he decides in the future to run again for public office as a Republican, I’ll support him and vote for him.

However, as a moderate blue, I disagree with his latest post, The Tweets of Wrath.

Too often, our mainstream media engages in false equivalency.  They report that one side did something, which is bad, but of course the other side also did bad things.  While I believe that if you look across the spectrum of issues, there are plenty of things that both sides could improve upon, when you look at individual issues or individual acts (Trumps tweets in this case,) there isn’t always equivalency.

For example, through Braver Angels, I’ve become much more aware of conservative concerns about hostility to conservative viewpoints in our universities and colleges. I’m convinced that this is something the left needs to address. If I was writing about acceptance of political diversity on campuses, I don’t need to bring up examples where the right is hostile to liberal viewpoints.  That would be a false equivalence.

President Trump’s language, telling four American citizens to go back to the “broken and crime infested places from which they came” was racist, xenophobic and not in the spirit of our history as the land of opportunity for immigrants. It wasn’t an attack on the ideas or policies of the squad, but on them personally. It was wrong. No amount of discussion of white liberal soft racism is going to change that.

I don’t think anyone is particularly surprised that Trump engages in these kinds of tactics. He may have pushed the boundary to a new low, but it’s not as if he hasn’t engaged in divisive, personally attacking rhetoric before.

My disappointment is in the lack of Republicans who condemn Trump for this rhetoric, and instead choose to remain silent or say some version of “both sides are at fault”.  Contrast this with John McCain’s behavior in the 2008 election cycle. John McCain had the moral decency that when people at his town halls called Obama an “Arab” and a supporter of domestic terrorism, he spoke up and said “he’s a decent family man.” McCain and Obama may have had disagreements on the issues, but McCain rejected the kind of rhetoric that demonizes opponents and portrays them as anti-American.

I get that when John describes these four congresswomen as “anti-American” because they express their opinions and criticize the administration, he’s not expressing his own opinion, but is instead trying to explain how one side views the events.  John calls this “patriotic empathy”, a phrase I like a lot and something that is at the core of what we’re trying to do at Braver Angels.

I also don’t jump to the indefensible conclusion that because I found these tweets by Trump to be racist, that all Trump supporters are racist. They aren’t.

However, there are times that I believe we need to go further than empathy, and we need to take a moral stand, as John McCain did, when people on our own side engage in hateful, divisive actions or rhetoric, and not try to create false equivalencies. I’d like to see more Republican office holders, more of my conservative friends in Braver Angels, and my friend John take a stand on Trump’s tweets.

Can’t we criticize the policies and actions of a President and other politicians without being labeled Anti-American? And how much more effective is this criticism if it comes from our own side? Just as I ask my conservative friends to decry racism, I ask my liberal friends to condemn arrogant, over-the-top social justice warriors like those at Evergreen State College.

One of the biggest sources of polarization is rhetoric within our own groups. When you hear such rhetoric, how do you respond to it in a firm but respectful way? Braver Angels has created a workshop to discuss how to do this called our “Within” workshop.

To learn more about our new Within workshop, where we teach techniques to defuse polarization both within ourselves and within our own group, please go to our website.

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3 thoughts on “Dispatch: Where Are the John McCains?”

  1. David Ludescher

    Mr. Ewel,

    Let me suggest that one of the first causes of polarization is identifying oneself as blue or red. For me, neither red nor blue have a particular meaning, because red and blue stand mostly for identification with a party, and not with identification of any theory of governance. The question you ask, “Where are the John McCains?” gets to the heart of the issue of polarization, and governance.

    On almost any issue that comes up today on the national political scene, you will not find a John McCain. The conduct on both sides of the red/blue division is shameful. Where were the John McCains during the Cavanaugh hearing? Was there a single Democrat who was willing to examine the record of the appellate judge on the merits, as opposed to trying to bring up a 35 year old allegation that was long past any reasonable statute of limitations? And, what about the Republican stalling on the Merrick Garland appointment? That was also shameful.

    Rooting for your favorite political party has become akin to rooting for the Minnesota Twins (or your favorite sports team) – a cause without a purpose. One big difference is that baseball has more identifiable rules, and penalties for violating the rules. Politics have no umpire, and very few rules. The rules it has are made up by the team that is winning at the time.

    I remain convinced that Trump is the symptom, not the cause of our unrest and division. He won the Republican nomination – in spite of significant and almost unanimous opposition within the party elite. They failed to recognize the people’s desire for a substantive response to the Democratic approach to governance until it was too late. Then, Trump won the election, in spite of his significant personal shortcomings, and lack of political experience and political ties. He won for reasons that still confounds many, and confounds almost all who didn’t vote for him.

    My theory on why there are so few John McCains? Because those that try to be rational and even-keeled are treated like the professor at Evergreen. It requires a tremendous amount of courage to stand up to the radicals, either on the left or on the right; and there is almost nothing to gain.

    Let me suggest that you refrain from calling our president racist, and other names that serve no legitimate purpose other than to incite other blues to engage in more name-calling. Let’s work together to be John McCains, even if it costs us the election.

  2. Thank you, Jim. I agree, there’s a world of difference b/w liberals acting self-righteous, condescending and/or adversarial and white nationalists espousing a politics of ethno-nationalist divisiveness, which is what I believe Trump is doing. Trump’s racism doesn’t give leftists license to behave badly but acknowledging that doesn’t mean that the two forms of misbehavior are equally harmful to society. Nor, in my opinion, is an incorrect accusation of racism as harmful as racism itself. What I’m seeing happening more and more is that the notion of liberals crying wolf with excessive and arguably inaccurate charges of racism becomes a defense against dealing with racism at all. If my cholesterol is high and my doctor tells me at every checkup to bring it down, I’m not going to ignore her just b/c I’m tired of hearing her talk about it.

    1. David Ludescher


      A couple of points:
      1. There may be a world of difference between self-righteous, condescending, and adversarial liberals and white nationalists espousing ethnco-nationalist divisiveness, but that isn’t the point. There is no reason to be a self-righteous, condescending, adversarial liberal. Being above a white nationalist isn’t a very high bar to jump.
      2. You can’t compare inaccurate accusations of racism against the evil of racism. Even if that were true that inaccurate accusations that are untrue are a lesser evil, which I don’t think it is, you aren’t jumping a very high bar.
      3. Most importantly, inaccurate accusations of racism carries a double evil, both which harm the cause of fighting racism. Inaccurate accusations cause harm to the accused. To be accused of something that is not true, especially something as vile as racism, damages a person’s reputation, causing that person to fear future false charges, and spreads distrust to others through the wrongfully accused.
      Most importantly, a false accusation taints and/or minimizes true accusations when they do arise. I would argue that the notion of liberals crying wolf with excessive and (arguably) inaccurate charges hasn’t led to not dealing with racism; it has led to the justifiable conclusion that liberals yell racism excessive and inaccurately. And, if they do so, why should we believe their version of how to deal both the scope and magnitude of racism?
      4. Watch the Evergreen College video to see how liberals will even eat their own in the pursuit of who can be the most self-righteous, condescending, and adversarial regardless of the facts.
      Using your analogy, if the doctor tells you that your cholesterol (self-righteousness) is too high, do you tell her that you know, but your neighbor’s blood pressure (nationalism) is even more dangerous, or do you just worry about your own health?

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