“Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.”
— Brutus, in Julius Caesar
“I am an American, first and foremost.”
— Colin Powell
Millions of American citizens who identify themselves as “Republicans” are coping with a daunting question: “What is the primary object of my loyalty? My Party? My Country? My religious faith? My conscience?”
The question is implicit, for few American citizens of whatever political persuasion would openly admit to themselves that loyalty to their party trumps loyalty to the United States. Instead, to the degree that they support their preferred party and its candidates, they routinely convince themselves that they are at the same time exhibiting loyalty to their country.
But when a party, its candidates, and its elected officials, stray from the founding moral and political principles of the American republic and its Constitution, party loyalty compels the adherents to conjure up elaborate rationalizations.
For steadfast Republicans, those rationalizations have been severely strained as the Bush/Cheney regime has relentlessly dismantled the Constitution of the United States, along with the rule of law and international treaties. The list of crimes and misdemeanors is long and woefully familiar: signing statements, ignoring Congressional subpoenas, violation of habeas corpus and the Geneva Conventions against torture, launching a “war of choice” against a non-threatening nation (in violation of the Nuremberg Accords), warrantless searches in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, etc.
Throughout all this, most Republicans (including all Congressional Republicans), have remained “on the reservation,” at worst publicly supporting the outlaw regime, and at best keeping their misgivings to themselves.
However, as we reach the waning days of this presidential election campaign, the rationalizations are beginning to unravel among many prominent Republicans and conservatives, as they face directly the conflicting answers to these two simple questions:
- Which candidates, McCain/Palin or Obama/Biden, will best serve my Party? The question, as they say, virtually answers itself: the nominees of the Party, McCain and Palin.
- Which of these candidates will best serve my country?
It takes a virtuoso application of self-deception for a thoughtful and informed Republican to arrive at the same answer to both questions. And if the answers diverge, that Republican comes face-to-face with an agonizing conflict of loyalties: my party first or my country first.
On Sunday, Colin Powell announced his decision. He would vote for Barack Obama.
Thus, Powell joins a flow of GOP and conservative defections, including:
- Conservative pundits Michael Smerconish, Andrew Sullivan, Christopher Hitchens, Christopher Buckley have openly endorsed Obama. Also Ronald Reagan’s Director of Arms Control, Ken Adelman.
- Conservative columnists George Will, Peggy Noonan, Kathleen Parker, William Kristol, David Brooks, and Charles Krauthammer have severely criticized the GOP candidates, McCain and Palin, without actually endorsing the Democratic candidates.
- For the first time in its 160-year history, The Chicago Tribune endorsed the Democratic candidate. Also switching over to the Democrats from the 2004 election, The Denver Post, The Houston Chronicle, The Salt Lake Tribune, The New York Daily News, among twenty-five leading newspapers identified by Editor and Publisher.
- In general, reports Greg Mitchell of Editor and Publisher, Barack Obama leads in newspaper endorsements “by a better than 3 to 1 margin (103 to 32 at last count). In contrast, when we did our final count in 2004, John Kerry barely edged George Bush, 213-205, and in elections before then, the GOP candidate almost always took the lion’s share of endorsements.”
This flow of defections might, in the next two weeks, become a flood. If it does, barring massive election fraud, this flood will surely sweep away the faltering candidacy of John McCain and Sarah Palin, and send Barack Obama to the White House.
The reasons for these defections are many and, to those who have been following the campaign, familiar. The Crisis Papershas collected and linked to numerous internet and media criticisms of the GOP candidates and their campaigns, so I will not repeat them here.
Instead, I will focus on what strikes me as the over-arching reason for the apparent collapse of the McCain/Palin campaign: John McCain has lost, and Sarah Palin has failed to gain, credibility as qualified occupants of the offices that they seek. They have thus disqualified themselves by the quality of their campaigns, by their performances in the debates (which can be seen here in full), and by their brazen willingness to assert and repeat demonstrable lies. In McCain’s case, these include the assertions that Obama’s political career was launched in the apartment of William Ayres, and that Obama would raise the taxes of most Americans. In Sarah Palin’s case, the claim that she opposed the so-called “bridge to nowhere,” and that she was “completely exonerated” by the official Alaska “Troopergate” investigation.
Unlike charges of “liberalism” or “socialism,” which are vague and thus open to endless interpretation and dispute, the above assertions are flatly false, provably false, known by both McCain and Palin to be false, and therefore correctly described as “lies.”
Faced with candidates that have thus disqualified themselves, with a party that has abandoned its conservative principles to religious fanatics and charlatans, and with an opposing candidate who, in his campaign, displays integrity, poise, legal education, and competence, what is the traditional Republican to do?
That hypothetical Republican is presented with a fundamental moral conflict and a test of moral maturity.
In his monumental treatise, A Theory of Justice (1971, pp. 490-1), John Rawls describes the growth in moral capacity from a “morality of authority” through a “morality of association” to a mature “morality of principles.” (I have much more to say about conflicting loyalties and moral development in my “On Patriotism”). Applied to the present case, these hypothetical Republicans, along with millions of independents and a few wavering Democrats, must choose between conflicting loyalties: to their political mentors (morality of authority), to their political affiliations (morality of association), or to the founding principles of our republic, in addition to an acceptance of the “reality-based” account of the planetary emergency as described by the sciences (morality of principles).
Upon that choice, rests the future of our country and, given the environmental and economic policy issues before us, the future of our planet.
“Country First?” That remains to be seen, in two weeks and beyond. Whatever the outcome of the election, the struggle is not over. It simply enters a new phase.