George Washington’s greatest nightmare is today’s reality. As we celebrate our independence let us re-read what Washington said to the nation in his farewell address, September 19, 1796. He warned us of the dangers of partisanship.
“I have already intimated to you the danger of Parties in the State… 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.
“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.
“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism….
“It 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 finds 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 policy and will of another.
“There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the Administration of the Government and serve to keep alive the spirit of Liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in Governments of a Monarchical cast, Patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in Governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. 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.”
We either forgot or decided not to heed Washington’s warnings. Partisanship and party politics is transparently evident today in the venomous rhetoric of election campaigns, stagnated, divisive and ineffective governments and rampant cynicism. Both parties hold onto power by characterizing the other side as the enemy.
I‘m tired of feeling bad about politics and those involved in it. I want to become a post-cynical American, to believe again people of goodwill can work for the common good instead of advocating for their own good or the good of their party, their business, their social class, sex, race or religion. Republicans want to protect the private sector. Democrats want to protect the public sector. Nobody wants to protect the common good.
Washington told us the force of public opinion can overcome the evils of partisan politics. Let us resolve to forcefully take that stand for a new independence from partisanship.