Washington vs. Washington

I know that it is a common human fallacy to believe that one is living in a special time and place where everything will change and important things will happen. However, the global events of the past few weeks and months have definitely caused many to believe that we may be living in such a time.  From terrorism in Norway, to riots in England, to widespread global and domestic economic problems, it seems that there is much to worry about.  And, of course, politically minded people will take every opportunity to cast the blame for these events on their rivals, and to claim that they alone have the secret to solving the world’s myriad problems.

 

Given these tumultuous and divisive times, I feel that everyone should consider the immortal words of George Washington, delivered in his 1796 Farewell Address.  Yes, Washington, 12 stories high, made of radiation, indeed predicted the future:

I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. 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. 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.

Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

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.

TL;DR version: Washington believes that political parties are dangerous for a democratic system.  He admits that the association of like-minded thinkers is indeed a part of human nature, and that parties do have some purposes in providing checks and balances against a government; however, he believes that parties obstruct the smooth operation of government, cause civil unrest, and are prone to corruption.  He compares the “alternate dominion of one party over another” to a form of despotism, and states that the problems caused by partisan politics may lead the people to reject democracy in favor of more permanent despotism.

TL;DR TL;DR version: Political parties are baad, mmmkay?

So what is the solution to this dilemma?  Washington suggests that “the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it[the party spirit].”  Thus, we the people, the ultimate issuers and deniers of political power must unite against the forces of partisanship that threaten to tear our country apart.  I admit that this seemingly simple solution may seem impossible to many; however, given the widespread discontent with our current government, now is the time to spread the word that we are the UNITED States of America, and that only through cooperation, compromise, and mutual respect will we prevail.

Other interesting quotes from Washington’s address that illustrate just how far we have strayed from our origins:

“The acceptance of, and continuance hitherto in, the office to which your suffrages have twice called me have been a uniform sacrifice of inclination to the opinion of duty and to a deference for what appeared to be your desire.”

“they will avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.”

“As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit. One method of preserving it is to use it as sparingly as possible, avoiding occasions of expense by cultivating peace, but remembering also that timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it, avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertion in time of peace to discharge the debts which unavoidable wars may have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear.”

“So likewise, a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite nation of privileges denied to others which is apt doubly to injure the nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained, and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld.”

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