The contest for the nomination of candidate for President of the United States is in full swing. On the Democratic side of the two-party event, there have been relatively polite sniping skirmishes between the last two contenders left, Senators Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. On the Republican side of the field a sometimes bloody, degenerative and chemical (if you count water spritzing) warfare seems to have become the norm since Texas governor Ted Cruz first announced his quest for candidacy last March. With three candidates left, including Cruz and Ohio governor John Kasich, the front-runner, businessman Donald Trump, continues to demonstrate his talent for histrionics and doublespeak in a national campaign that might as well be called the Presidential Primary Reality Show. Amidst this melee of sparring political agendas, policies promising change, and personal character defamation, sneaks in the noble concept of “unifying the country,” spilling like a well worn tag line from the lips of every candidate in the presidential-making parade.
The disposition of the American people continues to plummet with Gallup’s Mood of the Nation poll from March of this year showing that 72% of Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going, and 65% are dissatisfied with how the government is run. Still, candidates persistently include the concept of a united America at the end of stump speeches and revisited versions of the same stereotypical attacks on opponents policies in lieu of policies of their own, as if this will somehow serve to lessen the anger and disappointment the American people feel toward this system, and its gridlocked politicians.
Unifying the country is a common theme. Indeed, it can be said to be the superior vena cava running through nearly every political issue under debate, from foreign policy and immigration to healthcare and the state of the economy. One nation, united, with liberty and justice for all. Unity is one of the greatest underlying ideologies of the American experiment.
But, what exactly does a unified country mean? Is it even reasonable to think that unity (and a unified people) under a government that has a partisan two-party system can actually be attained, especially when the parties seem to be so far apart, and growing farther apart not just in ideology, but most importantly, in their refusal to compromise willingly?
As the political gap between Republicans and Democrats continues to widen, is it really logical to think that the idea of one unified American nation, indivisible, is anything more than a noble pipe dream?
A Long-Worn Habit
The ways of partisanship have been our political history longer than they have not been our history. Partisanship is integral and central to our way of seeing and experiencing government and the electoral process. The United States is a country in which all governmental functions seem to sit at the pivot of the seesaw swing between partisanship and bipartisanship.
It’s who we are. It’s what we are. It is the process by which we, the people, have chosen throughout the long arc of our history to elect our leaders.
Like a long-worn habit, the nature of it, including every candidate’s promise of change, every contentious party debate and exposition of issues, along with every derisive, inflammatory, self-aggrandizing statement is the cloth of recognition and judgment that we have become comfortable wearing. And, it is apparent by the way we continue donning its gritty, multi-faceted garb, that some of us see it as a necessity in choosing a leader, while others of us relish the entertaining vitriol of each event, even as we feign disdain. Haven’t we participated in creating this theatre of the absurd where, as a collective, we expect our politicians to court us in this manner, and, with the aiding and abetting of the media, entertain us with their theatrics as they reveal their views on the political issues? Do they rise to our expected occasion?
Though we can deny it all we want, it is evident that we have become dependent on political parties, their rhetoric, and their very partisanship in order to help us make our political decisions and choose our candidates. A review of history, however, shows us that it wasn’t always this way.
Ill Founded Jealousies and False Alarms
Our Founding Fathers did not believe in, nor want political parties, or factions, as they called them. Early leaders like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison adhered to the classical ideology of republicanism. No, not Republicanism like Ted Cruz or Donald Trump, but republicanism, the classic philosophy of Greek and Roman origin where the sacrifice of the individual was expected, and his personal interests were secondary to the good of the whole. Under classic republican ideology, the political process was supposed to be reasonable and collaborative and have a unifying vision identifying the “common good” for the entire community. It was not about competition or with an end product of winners and losers unable to compromise, strung out perpetually along party lines.
The writers of the Constitution unanimously agreed that if politicians were to break into groups with their own self-interests, the search for that “common good” would be compromised, lost. Politics, they warned, would de-evolve into disagreements between conflicting visions, and elections would produce disunity instead of unity. And, when politicians today talk about the Founding Fathers and their hopes for the future of this country, they conveniently forget to mention that nary a one of those founding political fathers wanted a partisan government. And, if the word bi-partisanship had even existed then, it wasn’t a state of government toward which to aspire, but at best, it was a debilitating compromise to prevent the erosion of a united government of the people, and by the people. To the founders of this country the attainment of bi-partisanship would have meant eternity in political purgatory with the promises of a recurring never-ending hell, not the term we have come to equate today with hope for compromise, wished-for communication between parties, and the well-enough functioning of the country with differing points of view under majority rule.
President George Washington was so against the idea of a dual-or multi-party state that he made it the central focus of his Farewell Address before Congress on September 19, 1796:
This Spirit [of party], 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.
[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 party against another, foments occasional 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.
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.
Washington could never have dreamed how prophetically correct his address would fit today’s political arena.
Though organized partisanship was a totally unplanned development, it is as Washington stated, a concept “inseparable from our [human] nature” and therefore, it cannot realistically be called an unexpected one. Even before the election of 1804, competing factions of governmental ideologies regarding domestic versus foreign policy were already spearheading disagreement among politicians, and by the time Thomas Jefferson was sworn into office, the original Congress was already divided into a bitter battle between Federalist and Democratic-Republican.
Today, there are five major political parties, including: Democratic, Republican, Green, Libertarian and Constitution. Of those five, only two, the Democratic and Republican, have Federal Representation. At present, there are an additional 39 minor ballot-qualified political parties, and, dcpoliticalreport.com concludes that there are currently 290 inactive political parties registered with the United States Electoral Commission.
No doubt President Washington has been spinning in his grave for centuries.
Even more ironic is the fact that Presidential campaigns of the 18th and 19th centuries were conducted very differently than they are now. For starters, no candidate could admit he wanted to be president. A gentleman wasn't allowed to ask the public for votes. This was considered vulgar and undignified. In addition, it was considered unseemly for a presidential candidate to praise himself and his successes. If a candidate wanted to be president, he had to wait for others to recognize his integrity and leadership skills, thus choosing to give him their vote.
The general public didn’t get to give that vote, either. Only Presidential electors, chosen by state legislatures did. And, the election cycle was, long and imprecise, sometimes taking months to come to any result. Campaigning, as we know it today, with candidates soliciting votes, explaining their position on issues, praising their successes, and persuading the uncertain didn’t become the way of elections until Franklin Roosevelt’s very public campaigning for the 1936 election ushered in the standards with which we’re familiar today.
There is no doubt that the United States political system has come a long way from the vision that the Founding Fathers had for it so many years ago. And with so much dissention and disagreement between political factions today, exacerbated and distorted by media coverage, one has to wonder if partisanship is truly a unifying factor for this country. In a recent debate.org poll, 61% of respondents answered yes, to the question: Are political parties hurting American politics? The Founding Fathers would agree.
However, to agree with the Founding Fathers in this case, at this point in our evolution, is to take for granted the personal freedoms that we as Americans have strived to achieve throughout our history. Because though the theory of checks and balances that the Founding Fathers established separating powers among the branches of our tripartite government is of fundamental importance to the equitable, fair-minded running of our modern democracy, just as necessary to that modern democracy is the importance of having political parties.
Parties provide choice. They represent groups with differing points of view, essential to our ideas of freedom of speech and just outcomes.
In this day, candidates and their partisanship play a critical role both in the functioning of our political process and in the on going governing of our country; without them, we would not be a democratic republic. Through partisanship, our representatives get to debate and argue, compromise and, ideally, find beneficial compromise for the good of the whole. It’s how democracy is supposed to work. Though, as we have often experienced, it doesn’t always work as intended, because when individual interests supersede the good of the whole, when politicians betray the people’s interest for funding offered by interest groups and ally themselves with corporations pushing their agendas, perpetuating partisanship, rather than bi-partisanship geared toward community benefit, the system fails. This is why the American people are angry. This is why we talk about campaign reform.
So, if as a nation, we are not “whole,” are we then split, into partisan pieces? We cannot seem to extricate ourselves from the process of partisanship. So, if the Spirit of party is, as President Washington declared, “inseparable from our nature,” then we should stop fighting it and embrace it.
The challenge for the American people is to find common ground and unity while acknowledging that it is sometimes the contrast in our disunity that open doors to new paradigms of thought and evolutionary change. Differing points of view provide contrast and texture. They help us define what it is we want by helping us become aware of what it is we don’t want. We, the people, have the choice to be in control. If we just stop seeing our fellow citizens as threats when they disagree and allow the process of change to happen naturally, we can take control by choosing candidates that stand for integrity and the good of the whole, rather than politicians who trade themselves and their own integrity for money and power.
Politicians are supposed to be public servants that work for us. The process of choosing them should not divide us. Our political elections today still contain the spirit of what our forefathers intended: a reasonable and collaborative process where the quest for a unifying vision identifying the “common good” for the entire community is paramount. But, the challenge is on us.
An election, especially for the highest office of President of the United States should not be about competition, self-aggrandizement, or the ego of the individual. And though we, as 21st Century citizens are a far different people than our 18th and 19th Century brothers and sisters, and cannot imagine a world without partisanship, we can create one with effective bi-partisanship that thrives, striving for a government not of winners and losers unable to compromise, strung out along party lines, but of politicians cooperative in leading their people into the future, and a citizenry informed and objective, united through the power of choice.