Washington on Political Factions
When you are a Hill staffer, there is unfortunately no way to hide from the upcoming election. All of our bosses in the House are running for re-election, Donald Trump is literally everywhere, and I don’t know about you, but every person from my home town assumes that I am an expert on predicting the future of the executive branch. Since Ted Cruz announced his candidacy and ushered us into the race for 2016, I have heard an overall frustration with party politics and the impact it has on our government.
It seems like the best place to go for a little wisdom on this subject is George Washington. When Washington ran for President, he was unopposed, which at this point is hard to imagine: the entire nation unanimously uniting around one person. However, political parties emerged during his first term with Alexander Hamilton leading the Federalist Party and Thomas Jefferson leading the Anti-Federalist Party or Democratic-Republicans. During those years, Washington undoubtedly caught a glimpse of the trouble political parties would bring to the nation.
In George Washington’s farewell address in 1796 he actually warned against the “spirit of party.” He believed that the formation of parties would cause people to focus on revenge and domination instead of the good of society. His words seem today more of a prophecy than a warning:
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.
It is important, likewise, that the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration, to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism. A just estimate of that love of power, and proneness to abuse it, which predominates in the human heart, is sufficient to satisfy us of the truth of this position. The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power, by dividing and distributing it into different depositaries, and constituting each the guardian of the public weal against invasions by the others, has been evinced by experiments ancient and modern; some of them in our country and under our own eyes. To preserve them must be as necessary as to institute them. If, in the opinion of the people, the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed.
It seems that what Washington so eloquently stated is that opposing political parties will create an “other” within American society.
We will no longer be a nation united under the principles of liberty, but we will be a divided people who find our identity in how our ideologies differ from the “enemy.”
This impacts every aspect of politics and makes meaningful compromise nearly impossible.
The question now must be: how do we move forward? Political parties are ingrained in our society, and personally, I am grateful to have more than one person running for President. However, by making the opposing political party an “other” we have abandoned our ability to govern. The American people are not first Republican and Democrat. They are first people, made in the image of God. Yes, they have different ideas about taxation, education, and national defense. However, when a Republican is afraid to talk to a Democrat and say, “wow, that’s a great idea,” because it would hurt his upcoming election, we have a serious problem.
When I reflect on my time on Capitol Hill, I think it is shocking how little interaction I have with the opposing party. I saw this most vividly during my first committee markup. I had just been given my first issue and was excited to offer the Congressman guidance throughout the markup. However, I quickly realized there was not much to guide. The majority writes the bill. The minority offers countless amendments to change the bill. The majority votes down all of the amendments on party lines, and we end the four hour-long markup with a lot of empty words and little progress.
The thought of actually putting on paper what it would look like to tell a better story where party line divisiveness is eliminated feels pretty overwhelming. I don’t think the answer is a new set of rules or a new form of governance. Instead, we need a work culture that fosters creativity and bipartisan interaction. But no matter what the system is, it will be run by broken people in need of a Savior. The truth is that we were all the “other” until Jesus came and died on the cross, paying our penalty so that we could be reunited with the Father. As people who have been set free, we have to start living like it.
Capitol Hill culture is pervasive. As Congressional Staffers, we need to use the power and influence we have wisely. We give vote recommendations, we research bills, we put articles in front of our Member’s eyes. Just because it isn’t normal to work with the other side, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. I hear stories about days when Congressmen didn’t have the ability to fly home every weekend like they do now so they developed friendships on all sides. They would eat meals together and learn about each other’s families and when it came time to debate, they might disagree, not with an enemy but with a friend. Since this is no longer a reality, maybe the change has to start with staffers. I have a lot more questions than answers, but I can tell you that this week I am going to walk down the hall to a political “enemy” and ask to buy them a cup of coffee. Maybe you will join me?
The writer is a Legislative Correspondent in the U.S. House of Representatives.