Washington’s advice to the political class still apposite today

Opinion: Parties and partisanship, though dangerous, are fundamental to our nature, first president thought

Fri, Feb 21, 2014, 00:01

For more than a century there has been a ritual in the United States Senate. On or near George Washington’s birthday, which falls tomorrow (February 22nd) a member of the body reads the “Farewell Address” of the first American president.

This year, if senators bother to listen, they will hear some very compelling and contemporary advice.

Washington’s address is widely known for what it says about avoiding alliances. But at its heart, it is a stern warning about the domestic threats to liberty and union that are likely to destroy the United States.

Washington names three: sectionalism, partisanship and public debt. Not a bad list. The first very nearly destroyed the nation in a civil war; the other two appear to be doing so today.

Washington’s discussion of sectionalism begins with a long list of reasons why preserving the union is essential to American safety and prosperity. He then laments the likelihood that that union will dissolve. Why? Because politicians will convince citizens that local interests are more important than national ones. They will misrepresent the opinions and aims of other regions and foment jealousies among communities. The nation will ignore the need for preserving union because “a small but artful and enterprising minority” will sway the people and because “cunning ambitious and unprincipled men” will prey upon them.

Washington does not draw an attractive picture of politics in the new American republic. He apparently assumed that, in a democracy, the people would get things wrong from time to time. Sometimes they would be shortsighted; sometimes selfish; sometimes confused; sometimes just stupid.

Stupidity is, of course, not exclusively a problem for democracies. Dictators and kings can be stupid too. But the errors of monarchy were well known to the revolutionary generation. Washington was afraid that with enthusiasm for democratic rule – an enthusiasm he shared – Americans might miss the fact that even in democratic societies people can make mistakes. And they make mistakes more often when they are organised into groups.

Political parties
Political parties, Washington warned, are the greatest danger facing the new nation. They “distract the public councils”, “enfeeble the public administration”, “agitate the community”, “promote ill-founded jealousies and false alarms”, kindle animosity and occasionally contribute to riot and insurrection.

Nor is the competition between political parties a check on their power; indeed it may even be an inducement to bad behaviour. “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension . . . is itself a frightful despotism.”

If Democrats win a big election in 2008 and Republicans retake the House of Representatives in 2010, that process of shifting power does not necessarily restrain the two parties. It may make acts of partisan revenge more frequent and intense. Unfortunately, political parties are “inseparable from our nature”. We humans band together, sometimes for good purpose, more often for narrow interest. The best we can do is keep a watchful eye. Partisanship, Washington says, is like a fire that cannot be extinguished. “You have to be vigilant to prevent its bursting into flame, lest instead of warming, it should consume.”

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