A recent short piece in The Atlantic caught my attention: “John McCain and the End of Romantic Conservatism.” Romantic conservatism seems an obvious oxymoron.

The author of the piece, Benjamin Wallace-Wells, contrasts the international idealism of Sen. McCain–now ill with cancer and absent from the Senate–with the “America First” nationalism of President Trump and most other D.C. Republicans through an interview with Mark Salter. Salter is McCains’ long-time speechwriter and co-author of a new McCain memoir, The Restless Wave:  Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights, and Other Appreciations. 

Sen. McCain is apparently a conservative “romantic” in the eyes of both Wallace-Wells and Salter because he still believes in spreading democracy and human rights (McCain has long spoken out against justifying torture), rather than making nice with various dictatorships. While this may be true, McCain has also been a leading vocal supporter of U.S. military intervention in the neoconservative vein.

Neoconservatives are, to put it bluntly, anti-romantic warmongers.

Diplomacy, in which people romantically, idealistically attempt to resolve international conflicts without resorting to war, has not been a big part of Sen. McCains’ conservative philosophy. But, on the other hand, Sen. McCain did work with former Sen. Russ Feingold on campaign finance reform and cast the deciding vote to preserve what remains of the Affordable Care Act; McCain was also censored in 2014 by the Arizona Republican Party for his supposedly liberal voting record. So I suppose that, compared to most American conservatives, Sen. McCain is “romantic.” Wallace-Wells writes of the general acclaim McCain is now receiving:

But the homage has been so personal that it has obscured the political matters of why the President continues to make an enemy of him, and of what conservatism will lose when McCain is gone.

What conservatism will lose when Sen. McCain is gone is a moderating voice (at least in terms of domestic policy), but to what extent has American conservatism in general ever been “romantic” in the literary/philosophical sense of the word?

I’d say, except for the marginalized agrarian conservatism of someone like Russell Kirk (which links back to the agrarianism of Thomas Jefferson), just about zero Romanticism. Conservatism and conservation have long been divorced, as has official conservatism and the imaginative emotion of sympathy for the disadvantaged. I do believe, however, that there is a true source of Romantic conservatism (traditional liberalism?) to be found in Britain and Canada. More on this in a following post.


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