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What would George say?                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Oct/22/2013 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: Historical Insights, Politics & Gov, Watching America,

Some say that modern politics are too far removed from historical examples to be realistically compared to anything in our school books. Others say that history is really about cause and effect, and the history books give us plenty of content to review when taking on the mess we call American politics. I am a strong believer in the latter and I feel that despite being dead for over 200 years, George Washington can offer us a lot insight into our current political challenges.

George Washington’s credentials are substantial. His leadership career began with the British Army during the French & Indian Wars. As the leader of the American revolutionary forces he held his forces together while supplies and logistics were at their thinnest. As the revolution progressed, he became renowned for his ability to select and manage his generals. Under Washington’s leadership the American forces captured the British army’s at Saratoga in 1777, and Yorktown in 1781. As the leader of the first successful revolution against a colonial superpower in world history, he became an international icon for liberation and nationalism. Washington’s reputation and example are considered a significant influence on later revolutions in France and Latin America.

As the political budget and debt battles of 2011-13 continue to mire all levels of the American political process, I am reminded of something our first President said in his farewell address. George Washington warned of the "continual mischiefs of the spirit of party" making it the "interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it." In other words, he cautioned against the dangers of political parties and their desires to devote energy to hindering their opposition over merely getting the work of government done.

Most historians and the general public consistently rank George Washington among the top three presidents of the United States. Despite this ranking, Washington is not typically held in the same high intellectual esteem as some of his contemporaries including Madison, Hamilton and Jefferson. However, Washington’s farewell address at the end of his presidency is considered one of the most precedent setting documents ever written by a President. In his farewell address Washington warned against the vengeful practice of political parties. It is clear by his other writings and documented exchanges that he believed parties would put their own interests above those of the country.

There is plenty of evidence to indicate that Washington was what we would now call “apolitical.” His focus as our first President was more on securing and sustaining the fledgling country, than on any factional arguments. His Presidential papers are littered with concerned statements referring to political parties that would “enfeeble public administration.” With two partial government shutdowns in 20 years furloughing thousands of federal workers, it is clear that our first President‘s concerns were as valid then as they are now.

Washington believed in encouraging future generations to change policies they did not like by constitutional amendment or through the electoral process, rather than positioning their party to enjoy short-term benefits. Clearly, the first President's distaste for political parties and factions still fits with the reality in which most Americans live today.

I don’t personally believe that polling should be used to drive political thinking and actions. If this philosophy were adopted, the voice of the minority would always be ignored. Polls can also, when over emphasized become self-fulfilling, and therefore be counterproductive to a true democratic process of governance. Nevertheless, polls do show that the divisions between Americans as portrayed in the media are grossly overblown. Of course, extremism and factionalized arguments make for much more sensationalism and news copy. The so-called culture wars are likely more myth than fact. Displaying neat and tidy categories for America of red or blue states makes for an easy visual on election night, but does not accurately depict the ideological beliefs of the represented citizenry.

On the political maps by example, California is consistently represented as a Democratic state, but taking that as a blanket assumption ignores how the other 42% of the states population is likely to vote at any given time. It is my belief that most Americans are not nearly as hard-core in their political ideology as the loudest voices of their political parties. We love a good fight and as conflicts will attract more audience than an agreement; those politicians whose points and words of debate inspire conflict also attract the most media attention. For the average citizen, seeking an agreement in their day-to-day challenges is the norm rather than the exception. Unfortunately, our political system is now dominated by the large financial influence of a small and polarized group. Obviously, these large donors contribute with the expectation that their specific agenda will be heard over other voices.

The effect of these large donors and their candidates is a polarized national narrative and a growing disillusionment for many Americans about the undue influence for the more ideological in our midst. When more ideological candidates are chosen in primaries, it leads to more ideological choices for voters. These choices likely do not reflect the preferences of the average citizen but instead more likely reflect the preferences among a party's more ideological members. This cycle becomes increasingly embedded when congressional districts are drawn to support such a system. The end result is what we see happening in Washington today -- gridlock based upon both partisan and ideological whims and general gerrymandering of the election process.

George Washington warned: "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." Both parties today would likely level such charges against one another, while most Americans recognize that both parties share responsibility for the current situation. With government shutdowns and the myriad affected agencies along with their thousands of furloughed federal workers; our first President’s insights appear to be exactly where the country finds itself today.

A common criticism is that both parties are putting their own interests above the interests of the United States. There is a delicate balance that needs to be found here. The democratic process is at its best when dissenting voices are allowed to be heard. Without protections that allow those special voices a secured time and place, our Congress would only be a group of synchronized nodding heads. Ultimately, our elected officials need to represent their constituents and the country. When their focus narrows too much to their own agenda, the business of the country as a whole fails.

George Washington was a man of many talents, but he was also someone who clearly had a pointed distaste for the business of politics and being political. Washington clearly believed in the long-term strength of the constitutional amendment process to change policies over the short-term benefits enjoyed from partisan positioning. Despite being dead for over 200 years, his special insight into the challenges of the political process and the multi-party system have proven more on point than much of what our current crop of pundits can muster.

Notwithstanding all these challenges and frustrations with our multi-party political system, I am reminded of the famous words and special insight of a noted British statesman.

"Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." (Sir Winston Churchill, Nov 11, 1947)

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Robert Lewis
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