Our first President, George Washington, detested the idea of political parties. In his Farewell Address, he argued, “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissention, which in different ages & countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.” The party system, he said,
“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 & insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence & corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions.”
He knew of what he spoke. During his Presidency, he gathered around him people of differing views and philosophies in order to best inform his decisions. However, the party system developed in his first term in office, led by two members of that diverse Cabinet: Alexander Hamilton, who was serving as Secretary of the Treasury, founded the Federalist Party, while Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State, founded (along with Washington advisor James Madison) the Democratic-Republican Party. Washington remained convinced that the party system would compromise the delicate balance of authority and power in the three-legged federal government established by the new Constitution, which had been enacted only seven years before this speech.
In our own time, the last seven years have served to illustrate Washington’s concerns. The Republican Party, especially, has become increasingly fragmented and doctrinaire, losing its ability to work with others to find a mutually workable solution to governmental problems. The election of the nation’s first African-American President stimulated a near revolt in the Republican Party, which saw the so-called “Tea Party” emerge as a conservative reaction to the broad social changes that President Obama’s election reflected. The Republican-led Congress, anchored by the Tea Party faction, has effectively frozen the political process, with adherence to the party’s most extreme wing replacing a shared commitment to national ideals. The most recent example is the refusal of Senate Republicans to consider the Administration’s nominee for the Supreme Court. As Washington predicted, the result of polarization in the party system is that none of the three independent branches of the federal government has been able to adequately fulfill their Constitutional responsibility.
Meanwhile, the traditional distinctions between the parties have fragmented and, in some ways, become confusing to voters. It’s odd. On one hand, the Democratic party is the party of labor and of civil rights. On the other, the Republican party has become the party of the displaced working class and of evangelical Christians. The Republicans are historically the party of business, but the Democrats are under fire for their connections to big corporations. Democrats are the party of big government, but Republicans want the government to step in to control individual behavior on a wide range of moral issues and to aggressively pursue international affairs.
One solution, it would seem, would be to encourage development of smaller parties, built around a more defined public agenda and then govern through coalitions. That’s not likely to happen. For the foreseeable future we will surely be locked into a polarized two-party system, even as that idea becomes less tenable. However, I would hope that the next President could help bring us together by following Washington’s example, creating a cabinet that includes the best and most experienced thinkers in government, regardless of party affiliation, as a step toward breaking the stalemate that we’ve lived with for the past eight years.