John McCain is that rare candidate who has a way of making people
believe in him even when they have only the vaguest idea of what he
stands for. Ross Perot inspired similar enthusiasm in 1992, until he
suddenly withdrew from the race. Likewise Colin Powell in 1996, though
he never actually became a candidate.
All three men symbolized an undefined patriotism and general disgust
with partisan politics. None had a clear program or principle to speak
of. McCain poses as a conservative, but his attachment to conservative
principles is iffy, and his chief appeal is not to conservatives but
to liberals, independents, and moderates. He is often described as
a Republican “maverick” because he favors such measures
as campaign finance reform and punitive taxes and restrictions on the
Though McCain himself speaks of these anomalous positions as “principled,” he
never actually explains what their governing principle is. He is certainly
less consistent than those conservative Republicans who steadily oppose
centralizing power in the federal government. His campaign “reform” would
give incumbents more power to regulate their opposition — an
odd way to improve republican self-government, to which unfettered
opposition is vital. His anti-tobacco crusade similarly aspires to
make a large sector of American life and industry less free than it
has traditionally been.
Far from being a “maverick” (except in terms of party
discipline), McCain conforms to the dominant
principle of twentieth-century politics: the autonomous state, the
state that is the source of its own authority and recognizes no authority
above itself that may limit its power. The most egregious examples of this principle were Communism,
Nazism, and fascism. But there is a milder American version as well.
In civilization’s better moments, the state has acknowledged
limits on itself. When it claims authority from God, it is bound by
divine law; when it claims authority by custom and succession, it is
limited by positive law; in other cases it has recognized what Catholic
theology calls “natural law,” by which it has been accordingly
The American Republic was based on an interpretation of natural law,
under which government existed to secure man’s natural rights
and derived its specific powers from the consent of the governed. The
U.S. Constitution was the instrument by which the governed — “We
the People” — delegated certain specific powers to the
federal government. All the powers that weren’t delegated to
that government were forbidden to it.
Abraham Lincoln recognized that slavery was contrary to the natural
rights of man; but he also recognized that the Constitution had delegated
to the federal government no legal power to meddle with it in the states
where it existed. In the Emancipation Proclamation he merely claimed
the military authority to deprive slaveowners in the rebellious states
of their slaves; and even so, many other Northerners thought he had
exceeded his constitutional power. Everyone agreed that abolishing
slavery throughout the United States required a constitutional amendment.
The principle at stake was limited government. All Americans understood
that it was dangerous to allow government to exercise any power that
had not been specifically assigned to it, no matter how righteous the
cause or how great the evil to be remedied. When alcohol was seen as
an evil to be banished, they amended the Constitution. However misguided
Prohibition was, at least they recognized that such an exercise of
federal power required a formal change in the basic rules of American
The original consensus broke down during the New Deal, when Franklin
Roosevelt claimed that the Great Depression had created emergency conditions
requiring both centralized power and lax interpretation of the Constitution.
Constitutional restrictions on the federal government became meaningless
as Roosevelt construed such phrases as “general welfare” and “interstate
commerce” to be almost infinitely elastic. During World War II,
the “general welfare” warranted the incarceration of all
Japanese-Americans; there was no logical reason why it couldn’t
have been invoked to justify killing them all.
With Roosevelt, the United States moved from limited government to
the autonomous state that could define its own powers as it pleased.
John McCain belongs to this recent tradition, under which the Founding
Fathers, Lincoln, and even Woodrow Wilson would qualify as “extremists.”
Copyright © 2012 by the Fitzgerald
Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. This column was published originally
by Griffin Internet Syndicate on February 17, 2000.
Joe Sobran was an author and a syndicated columnist. See bio
and archives of some of his columns.
Watch Sobran's last TV appearance on YouTube.
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during the FGF Tribute to Joe Sobran in December 2009.
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