It’s a little late now, but it appears that more people should have listened to George Washington back in 1796.
During his farewell address to the governmental leaders of the time, the outgoing first president launched a direct assault on the concept of political parties.
”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,” Washington said. “In governments purely elective, a spirit of party is not to be encouraged.”
Had Washington been a spectator to the Jan. 6 unpleasantness at his nation’s capital, he no doubt would have shaken his head sadly and mouthed the words “I told you so.”
Horrid enormities? Check. A spirit of revenge? Yup.
Donald Trump didn’t give a farewell address after the 2020 election, of course — he was too busy claiming that he didn’t actually lose. It’s too easy, though, to blame the uptick in political polarization on Trump alone. This has been building ever since Washington’s day.
Political parties do serve a purpose, providing the framework that enables us to hold elections. By stating their positions on the issues of the day, the candidates provoke a national discussion on those matters, which is healthy. What is not healthy is when this all-or-nothing identification with party follows the election winners into office. That’s where Washington’s worst fears are fulfilled.
For what we have now is an ongoing sports event, not a functioning government. Indeed, most people choosing sides in this competition are not actually Republicans or Democrats in the usual sense — they don’t go to party meetings, hand out literature or work the polls on Election Day. Rather, they are simply picking one of the only two options offered to them (except for joining the ranks of independents, who have been ground down into irrelevance).
As a result, a national illusion has arisen that politics and government are one and the same. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.
Consider today’s Congress as Exhibit A:
(1). Governing means pulling together the best minds and most innovative ideas and using them for the common good.
Politics means relying only on half of these resources and ignoring the rest, since they come from the other side.
(2). Effective governing involves compromise, dropping different ideas into a blender and emerging with a palatable consensus that includes the best aspects of both.
In politics, compromise is seen as a weakness.
(3). Effective governing encourages trying out new ideas and alternative methods.
Politics is all about clinging to the status quo. Otherwise, the voters might not like it.
(4). Governing is based on issues and challenges.
Politics is based on personalities and slogans.
(5). The main function of government should be to move the country forward.
The main function of politics is to get elected, and then re-elected.
(6). Our system was set up to anoint “representatives.” And while it’s impossible to act upon all the diverse needs in a single state or district, that designation at least assumes that these representatives would maintain an open mind and an unlocked office door.
Politicians listen only to those who voted for them. The others might as well live in Afghanistan.
You get the idea. Two things that might alter this dire trajectory, I believe, are term limits (coupled with making a House of Representatives term four years instead of two) and at least one or two more viable political parties.
The issue with the former, of course, is that it’s a lot to ask for people in Congress to vote to fire themselves. So perhaps a constitutional amendment?
As for the latter, some of the rules need to be changed to give newcomers a leg up on the political process.
Meanwhile, all these political animals have suckered us into thinking that they’re important, that their adolescent squabbles really have anything to do with running the country or representing us.
What they fervently care about, most of all, is how the party to which they have pledged allegiance can grab the Holy Grail of a congressional majority. To that end, they engage in a constant catfight over subjects that often have very little impact on our daily lives. Most of the national media is breathlessly complicit.
We need to make it clear that it’s not about them. It’s about us — conservative, liberal, black, white, male, female, etc. In other words, the people who hired them.
Yet encouraged it was, which now brings us to a point where our two major political parties have turned polarization into religions (or, in some cases, religion into politics), grappling like two combatants on the edge of a cliff.
Darrell Laurant is a veteran journalist who previously worked at the News & Advance (Lynchburg). He published over 7,000 pieces in three decades. Darrell has covered papal visits, the Olympics, American sports, and political issues in Virginia. He has also written a variety of books, including "Inspiration Street: Two City Blocks that Helped Change America."