We need to take hold of John McCain’s legacy


Hunter Long

American flag (Photo by Hunter Long // The Vanderbilt Hustler)

Alexa O'Brien

U.S. Senator John McCain passed away on Saturday, August 25 at the age of 81 after a long battle with brain cancer. He will be remembered as a war hero, a two-time presidential candidate and a maverick of the Senate. McCain crossed party lines both literally and figuratively on the Senate floor – something we rarely see in 2018. McCain was at times the sole reminder of the days before the Tea Party and hyperpolarized party politics. Although I disagree with McCain’s devotion to Reaganomics and his support for defunding Planned Parenthood, I will greatly miss his dedication to bipartisan discourse.


As we – liberals and conservatives alike – mourn the loss of John McCain, we are reminded of how far our nation has spiraled into a pit of factional lunacy. It took the death of this great American for current Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Democratic Senate Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to publicly agree on something. They both issued public statements that spoke to McCain’s tremendous leadership, dedication to the United States and fundamental skills as a patriot who served our nation for over 60 years. It was a breath of fresh air. Two men who constantly disagree took the time to recognize an amazing man who put discourse and compromise before his party.


John McCain has learned to stick to his values, often bucking partisan norms. He was one of few Republican to oppose George W. Bush’s tax cut package, claiming they were crafted for big money special interests. Manifesting those same principles, he worked with staunch liberal Russ Feingold (D-WI) to pass the McCain-Feingold Act, which worked to restrict outside corporate spending in political campaigns. Through the end of his career, he continued to oppose party norms, most notably sinking the Republican effort to undermine the Affordable Care Act. Along with opposing Republican legislative initiatives, McCain also took many stands against the most visible Republican leader, Donald J. Trump.


John McCain worked to steer his party away from Trump, whom he saw as immoral. While not unwavering in his opposition to the president, McCain forcefully put his values over his party. McCain denounced Trump’s executive order that banned travel from several Muslim-majority countries, saying that it will “give ISIS some more propaganda.” When Trump attacked the Kahn family, whose son died in the Iraq War, McCain said that he “could not emphasize enough how deeply he disagreed with” Trump’s statement. Even though other senior members of the Republican Party refused to question Trump toxic rhetoric and agenda, McCain stood his ground till he passed. In his final remarks to the American people, he stated, “We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries.”


Our current trajectory towards increased polarization is eroding our faith in democratic institutions and destroying civil discourse. However, we can get off of this path. We can see the positives in others, regardless of their party. Personal attacks on politicians can fade. It would be a future where politicians have the confidence to call people across the aisle friends – just as John McCain and Joe Biden did. .


Vanderbilt needs to look to John McCain for inspiration. The Hustler rarely represents the voices of moderates and conservatives. In the Opinion section last year, liberal-leaning articles outnumbered conservative-leaning articles 7 to 1. Outside of the Opinion section, much of the conservative discourse could be traced back to Matt Colleran’s column. One can appreciate the enthusiasm of the left-leaning writers at the Hustler, but they must be balanced with conservative voices in order to promote productive civil discourse between students with differing beliefs. More broadly, campus leadership often underrepresents conservative students and some conservatives feel their free expression is repressed on campus; it’s part of the reason why Vanderbilt ranks low on the Heterodox Academy’s viewpoint diversity measure.


Take hold of the McCain legacy – bring the discourse back. Challenge your own beliefs. Take the time to listen to your peers, even when you disagree.


Alexa O’Brien is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences and Peabody College. She can be reached at alexa.t.obrien@vanderbilt.edu.