“Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of the party, generally. This spirit…is inseparable from our nature…[i]t 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 own worst enemy.”
This warning, written by George Washington in his Farewell Address in September of 1796, was meant to awaken the citizenry of the United States to the danger posed by political parties. Formal parties as we know them today were only beginning to be established in the U.S. at the end of Washington’s second term. Washington himself was not a member of either party in existence at that time (the Federalist Party, headed by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and the Democratic-Republicans, founded by James Madison and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson) and was generally opposed to formal political parties.
Despite this fear, Washington acknowledged the difficulty in preventing their formation, saying “the spirit of the party…is inseparable from our nature.” Washington clearly understood that parties arise out of the need for most people to belong, particularly with like-minded individuals. Looking at the modern political parties, we see this to still be true more than 200 years after Washington penned his words of caution. While members of the modern parties are not monolithic in their opinions, ideas, and outlook, they typically share sufficient similarities that they naturally gravitate towards one another.
Washington goes on to warn:
“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to the party dissention, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, it itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. 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.”
Revenge, a battle between parties, is Washington’s main concern here. By this, Washington implies that when a previously out-of-power party comes into power, it will enact policies as retribution against its main rival. These vengeful policies will escalate over time as the party-in-power changes, leading to chaos and loss of freedom. This phenomenon has played out in modern times, perhaps most famously involving Richard Nixon, while others insist that actions against Bill Clinton were similarly motivated, and that present economic policies (including automobile dealership closures) are intended to injure political opponents of the Obama administration. It is Washington’s opinion that the manner in which this pattern will stop is the elevation of a tyrant to power who will abolish all opposition parties, ending with a total loss of liberty.
Washington also admonishes the citizens of the U.S. that:
“…the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of wise people to discourage and restrain it.”
He goes on to say:
“[Faction] serves always to distract the Public Councils, and enfeeble the Public Administration. It agitates the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policies and will of another.”
Washington makes two very interesting points here. First, that political parties “[kindle] the animosity of one part against another.” What we might take from this, from the modern American perspective, is his anticipation that political parties will Balkanize the citizenry, pitting various groups against one another. This argument is worthy of discussion because it appears that this is actually happening today. Modern media spend significant amounts of time discussing what has been termed “identity politics” – whether certain policies are good for, say, women, minorities, immigrants, labor union members. At first glance, this appears to be a worthwhile endeavor; however, what should be important is ensuring government policies are good for the greatest number of Americans, regardless of persuasion. This fracturing of the American public can only lead to distrust and animosity, and will give the appearance of governmental favoritism based upon current office holders. Some have argued that these types of preferences are meant to right the wrongs of the past, the preferences may be reversed when a different faction assumes power. And, as has been said in the past, two wrongs never make a right.
The second, and very clear, statement Washington makes is that political parties may cause more harm than good, up to and including “riot and insurrection.” It is plain, from these portions of Washington’s Address, that he believes political parties will act in their own best interest, irregardless of the effect of these actions on the country at large. This may, in fact, be Washington’s most prophetic statement when considering modern American politics. We often hear today of a Congressman or Senator that has “betrayed the party” by voting with the opposition. Or we hear that the minority party has voted en masse against specific legislation often out of the desire to “hurt’ the majority party. What is problematic with this is that it does not allow for individual legislators to vote their conscience, and also promotes the precise attitude that Washington warns against – party over country.
Caught in the middle of the inter-party fighting are the American people, who see problems all around them – a poor economy, unfathomable levels of public debt, a devalued currency, wholesale loss of manufacturing, mass illegal immigration, deteriorating public infrastructure, substandard educational institutions – that require solutions, rather than petty partisan bickering. Whether this quarreling can be stopped long enough to solve these problems may determine the fate of the United States as a sovereign nation.