Looking at the political landscape at the outset of 2017, it seems that many of the things that George Washington feared and warned about have come to pass. The main warning? That hyper partisanship could give rise to the fall of the American republic. That fear is now reality as the Republican Party has embraced a dangerous, narcissistic demagogue whose presidential campaign used hate, bigotry, racism homophobia and misogyny as its basis. But the death spiral of the GOP into something hideous and dangerous began before Trump came on the scene and announced his candidacy. The GOP's hyper partisanship, in my view traces to the rise of those I describe as Christofascists in the GOP. These religious extremist sought and continue to seek the establishment of of their toxic version of Christianity as America's official religion. Coupled with this quest was and is a strong current of white supremacy. To these people, anyone who disagrees is the enemy must be destroyed politically, and if they could secretly have their wish, physically as well. As a former City Committee member for the GOP for over 8 years, I witnessed this infiltration of the GOP and the party's turn toward hate and ugliness. I resigned from the party when I could not in good conscience be part of the growing message of hate and intolerance.
Sadly, the mainstream media in its misplaced quest for "balance" has acted as if partisanship is an equal failing of both the GOP and the Democrat Party. Having now been involved in both parties, in my mind their is no doubt that the extremism lies with the GOP. Democrats still care about the larger good of the country and its citizens. That cannot be said of today's GOP which is poised to give huge tax breaks to the obscenely wealthy while depriving 20-30 million Americans of health insurance. For today's GOP, if one is not a white, heterosexual right wing Christian, one is not even seen as fully human. A piece in Politico looks at George Washington's warning in his farewell address. It appears that the fate Washington feared has arrived. Here are article highlights:
Washington warned of the dangers of political factions to democratic republics throughout history. His aversion to partisanship reflected the fact that just a few decades earlier, in 1746, political parties had driven England to civil war. This first farewell address, from our only truly independent president, hearkens back to an age when distrust of political divisions was perhaps higher than it is now—and offers a solution to what ails us today.
“I was no party man myself,” Washington wrote Thomas Jefferson, “and the first wish of my heart was, if parties did exist, to reconcile them.” As our first and only independent president, Washington’s independence was a function not only of his pioneering place in American history but also of political principles he developed over a lifetime.
To Washington, moderation was a source of strength. He viewed its essential judiciousness as a guiding principle of good government, rooted in ancient wisdom as well as Enlightenment-era liberalism. Much could be achieved “by prudence, much by conciliation, and much by firmness.” A stable, civil society depends on resisting intolerant extremes. The Constitution did not mention political parties, and during the debate over ratification, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton praised the Constitution’s “spirit of moderation” in contrast to the “intolerant spirit” of “those who are ever so much persuaded of their being in the right in any controversy.”
Washington understood the danger of demagogues in a democracy. He was a passionate advocate of moderation as a means of calming partisan passions and creating problem-solving coalitions. Adams also believed that “without the great political virtues of humility, patience, and moderation … every man in power becomes a ravenous beast of prey.”
And it was a source of personal pain for Washington to see his Cabinet degenerate into exaggerated suspicions and vicious slanders during his presidency. Most frustrating was to watch his motives twisted and attacked for partisan gain by “infamous scribblers” in the newspapers. Even in the days after winning independence from Britain, Washington warned of the dangerous interplay between extremes. “There is a natural and necessary progression from the extreme of anarchy to the extreme of tyranny,” he wrote in his Circular Letter to the States, and “arbitrary power is most easily established on the ruins of liberty abused to licentiousness.” As liberty in France turned to anarchy and then tyranny during his administration, it confirmed his deepest instincts.
As a young man, Washington devoured the popular early-eighteenth century essays of Joseph Addison in the Spectator of London. Addison was the author of his favorite play, Cato, and while reflecting on the sources of England’s bloody civil war in the 1640s, he had written an influential essay on “the Malice of Parties.” It’s worth quoting at length:
“There cannot a greater judgment befall a country than a dreadful spirit of division as rends a government into two distinct people, and makes them greater strangers, and more averse to one another, than if they were actually two different nations. The effects of such a division are pernicious to the last degree, not only with regard to those advantages which they give the common enemy, but to those private evils which they produce in the heart of almost every particular person. This influence is very fatal both to men’s morals and their understandings; it sinks the virtue of a nation, and not only so, but destroys even common sense. A furious party spirit, when it rages in its full violence, exerts itself in civil war and bloodshed; and when it is under its greatest restraints, naturally breaks out in falsehood, detraction, calumny, and a partial administration of justice. In a word, it fills a nation with spleen and rancor, and extinguishes all the seeds of good nature, compassion and humanity.”
The founding fathers’ suspicion of faction was rooted in the classical tradition that celebrated the virtue of moderation—and the subsequent independence of thought and action that moderation can create. “According to the classical doctrine, membership in a political party inevitably involved defending the indefensible vices of one’s allies and attempting to dominate one’s fellow citizens in order to satisfy a narrow self-interest,” wrote historian Carl J. Richard in The Founders and the Classics in 1994. “In the eighteenth century the greatest compliment one man could pay another was to call him ‘disinterested.’ To be disinterested was to place justice above all considerations, including one’s own interests and those of one’s family, friends and political allies.”
When Washington became president, he intended to establish a government above faction and special interests. “No local prejudices or attachments; no separate views, nor party animosities,” he promised in his first inaugural address, “will misdirect the comprehensive and equal eye which ought to watch over this great assemblage of communities and interests.”
“If we mean to support the liberty and independence which it has cost us so much blood and treasure to establish,” he wrote to Rhode Island governor Arthur Fenner, “we must drive far away the demon of party spirit and local reproach.”
Washington warned, rampant factions were a “fatal tendency” in democracies. The thin history of republics up to that point showed that partisan factions led by “cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men” distorted democracies by pursuing narrow agendas at the expense of the national interest. Washington identified regional parties based on “geographical discriminations” as a particular danger, because they undermined national unity in pursuit of power. “Designing men may endeavor to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views” by misrepresenting the “opinions and aims” of people from other states and regions. “You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations,” Washington warned. “They tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.” . . . . “The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.”
Now, in 2017, after an eight-year presidency that promised to bridge our divides but confronted the political reality of polarization and the election of a successor whose victory has highlighted the deep divisions in America, Washington’s vision for vigorous citizens checking the rise of extreme partisanship is striking in its relevance. We need to heed Washington’s warning.