McCain, Catholics and Patriotism

Catholic voters certainly came to look at the Democratic Party differently in the wake of Roe, but the breaking apart of the New Deal Coalition had begun earlier. The turmoil of the late 1960s – the counter-culture, the anti-Vietnam War protests, the emergence of radical feminism, Stonewall, etc. – combined with the attenuated cultural position of ethnic Catholics, who had left their urban neighborhoods for the far more impersonal suburbs, to weaken the bonds between Catholics and Democrats. The Left, rightly or wrongly, and there was a fair measure of both, challenged the idealized image of American culture that ethnic Catholics had striven hard to enter. No issue was more disconcerting to blue collar, ethnic Catholics than the Left’s increasing stridency about Vietnam. What began as a principled opposition to some of the military’s tactics – the use of napalm, the indiscriminate bombing of civilian populations, the deceit – became first an opposition to the war itself and finally a loud, angry, not particularly coherent attack on America itself. We were murderers. We were the tyrants, not the Communists. Needless to say, this did not sit very well with ethnic Catholics, many of whom hailed from countries living under Communist domination and who needed no lectures about tyranny from college students. John McCain’s public persona has been built upon his military service in Vietnam, specifically upon his many years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi. He is, in every sense of the word, an American hero. But he is more than that. His suffering in prison is a symbol of courage against the perceived cowardice of the protesters and draft dodgers and others who questioned America. His aura is enhanced by the way he has used his status as a hero to heal the wounds of that war, for example, denouncing the Swift Boat attacks on John Kerry in 2004. The 2008 election is not going to be a referendum on Vietnam. But, McCain must seek to conflate his patriotism with the fight in Iraq and, at least by implication, conflate Barack Obama’s opposition to the Iraq war with the excessively unpatriotic protests of the late 1960s. He must appeal to the mythic America, the America that does not lose wars, the America that is always on the right side of history, the America that has a special place in God’s Providence. After the protests of the 1960s gave way to the ennui of the 1970s, Ronald Reagan came along, brimming with optimism and a strong belief that America could be great again. Catholic voters flocked to him. McCain, faced with an incumbent of his own party who has made a mess of virtually everything he has touched, cannot hope to win on any one issue or set of issues. His expertise in foreign and military affairs must be seen not as a line on a resume, not as something that speaks to why he is great but speaks to why America is great. On election night in 1988, when George H.W. Bush went over the top, a sign at his victory party was unfurled that read "America Wins." America, of course, did not win. Bush did. But, that is precisely the kind of conflation McCain needs to create and, if he does so successfully, the white ethnic Catholics who came to be known as Reagan Democrats will flock to his campaign too. Michael Sean Winters
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