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Opinion :: Beware of the excesses of political parties: Washington’s most un-heeded speech
· 10:32am February 22nd, 2013
It’s ironic that as we celebrate the anniversary of George Washington’s birth 218 years ago today, that even before the ink was dry on his farewell message, two of his best friends and closest associates in the creation of his country were already at work ignoring his words.
“Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally,” Washington wrote in his Farewell Address in September of 1796. He was announcing that he would not seek re-election as President, and published his farewell in a written message that appeared in newspapers throughout the nation.
In that address, our First President offered many important pieces of advice. But one particular warning he gave his nation has gone unheeded since then – and now continues to be ignored: The practice of putting party before country.
Like fans in the upper deck who react with outrage at an umpire’s call based solely on which team benefits from the call, too many Americans – voters and politicians alike – can only see things through their party’s limited, weak perspective.
“This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy,” wrote Washington.
He went on to warn that excessive loyalty to party over country leads to a spirit of revenge, dissension, despotism, disorders and miseries that lead to the elevation of politicians on the ruins of public liberty.
After acknowledging the role of political parties and factions in debating what is best for the country, Washington’s last words on this topic were:
…a fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.
While that message was still being carried on horseback from city to city, where newspapers spread the news that Washington would no longer be President, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had already begun to be consumed by the fire of politics.
The two had worked together, drafting the Declaration of Independence and guiding the new nation into existence with their wisdom.
But in 1796, they became the leaders of the two opposing parties and opponents in the next two presidential elections.
But worse than that, they became enemies.
Some of the allegations made during the campaigns of 1796 and 1800 make the trash we heard in 2012 look like preschool name-calling.
The former friends were enemies for the next decade, and beyond. It was not until around 1812, when both were retiring from public service, that they renewed their friendship. They died together, on July 4, 1826, as America was celebrating what they then called its Jubilee.
Historians say that both Adams and Jefferson made significant errors during their terms as President. I have to think that if they had heeded Washington’s warning, early America would have been much better.
Washington warned his country that the only way to limit the domination of party-first thinking was through “force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it.”
That, however, does not happen.
We, as Americans, mutter about politicians. We grumble about Democrats and Republicans. And no matter which party is in power in the White House or Congress, most of us say America is on the “wrong track.”
But the force of public opinion that Washington called on is not nearly forceful enough. We do not pay enough attention to politics. Those involved in one party do not look hard enough at the nonsense of their own party, or try to see the potential in the ideas that come, as we now say “across the aisle.”
And when we send our representatives to Congress – which we used to call our “Citizen Legislature” – the first thing they have to do is: Get on the phone to raise money for the next election – or to pay the bills from previous elections.
Winning has become more important to almost all of them. There is no party that wants to make solving problems, creating home-grown energy, or reducing the budget deficit its first priority. The first priority is winning.
The argument goes: “Well, if we don’t win, we can’t do what we want to do.”
But the fact is that most of the energy goes into winning, not doing.
And only we can change that. Only hundreds of millions of Americans can change that by paying attention – and by issue after issue, demanding that both parties put America first, or face certain defeat in the next election.
Two hundred and seventeen years of American history, however, says we won’t.
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