Responsible officials in a democracy understand that their first duty is to defend the system. Choosing among the infinite array of possible policies is secondary.
Militant to a fault and most willing to offer America’s soldiers for the defense of such foreigners as least deserved their help, exposed by the heat of campaign as not really up to being President, this poor conservative who could not tell a Sunni from a Shi’i but thought he could decide who America’s friends were, suddenly—in a bizarre twist of fate— found his calling defending not some pseudo-ally with America’s armed might but true, liberal, Madisonian, Jeffersonian American values with his voice and his courage. Who could have imagined that it would be a dyed-in-the-wool conservative who would become the champion of such liberal values as freedom of speech and freedom of the press? Who could have imagined that the Chairman, or indeed any chairman of an armed services committee, would turn out to be the one, single senator capable of teaching Americans about how a politician on the make can become a dictator and overthrow American democracy?
If the destruction of the fourth estate—a press free to criticize power, to expose the nakedness of the emperor—is not, as the Chairman stated, the first step toward dictatorship, then it is certainly one of the first four steps, the other three being setting up a minority as scapegoat, endlessly repeating the Big Lie, and undermining the independence of the judiciary…and these other three steps have of course already most firmly been taken. Perhaps only one further step exists in the basic recipe for establishing a dictatorship: starting a war.
It does not matter whether a politician establishes a precedent intentionally; it does not matter whether a politician takes advantage of the precedent. Precedents do not die by themselves: they sit silently on the shelf, loaded guns for anyone to grab and fire without having to justify themselves (“why not? Joe did it!”). That is why they are called “precedents.” The precedents of attacking the judiciary as an institution independent of Presidential desires, of attacking the right and duty of the media to criticize power and expose its limitations, of making scapegoats out of innocent minority groups are vastly more important than any particular policy of the day. Whatever the intentions of the Administration, its actions in one short month constitute a text-book example of how to turn a democracy into a dictatorship and thus establish an incredibly dangerous precedent that must be denounced and rejected in the clearest possible terms. Otherwise, someday, someone will seize this poisoned precedent and use it for nefarious purposes.
To make the above point crystal clear, the structure of the house of democracy rests upon a number of pillars, of which four of the most important are: an independent media; an independent judiciary; a constrained president; and respect for groups (racial, sexual, political, age, educational level, political perspective). Senator McCain stands out among GOP leaders for the clarity of his defense of these pillars of democracy, in contrast to the many who, for superficial reasons of particular policy preferences, profess to be satisfied with the current oppressive atmosphere of hostility toward this or that group, this or that profession, this or that sex, this or that branch of government.
So, whatever one may think of Senator McCain’s long career, whether or not one may think that his survival of POW camp entitles him to be called a “hero,” his defense this week of his own party’s negligent, if not hostile, attitude toward the independence of the media entitles him to be considered a true hero.