As one of the most important documents in American history, George Washington’s farewell address held sway over American thought and policy well into the 20th century. While today we fail to give it the reverence it deserves, we would benefit from consulting it as we attempt to understand what created our current political climate and how to change it.
Having sacrificed the later years of his life to secure American liberty, Washington saw preserving the new union of the states as vital for that liberty to continue. Consequently, he used his last address as President to warn his countrymen against some dangers that threaten that union. Prophetically foreseeing the Civil War, Washington warned against regional factions placing their interest above the interest of the whole nation.
Anticipating that people can become as committed to a cause or political party as they are to a place or community, Washington warned against the “baneful effects of the Spirit of Party.”
When the spirit of party takes hold, it alters our reasoning and decision making process in subtle but profound ways. Rather than being solely concerned about the wellbeing of the nation, we become concerned with promoting the wellbeing of the party. Consequently, a party’s pursuit of power will result in “common and continual mischiefs” that:
[D]istract 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.
A party’s “wellbeing” typically correlates to the amount of political power it possesses. The mischiefs outlined by Washington have the common thread of motivating the people to political action through means contrary to unity and peace. Because these tactics are so effective for getting people to the voting booths, political leaders regularly cultivate the same jealousies and animosities year upon year to produce more votes for their causes and parties. And many of these regularly cultivated jealousies and animosities have taken root deeply in our society and are now yielding a harvest of extreme and radical behaviors.
“Main Street vs. Wall Street.” “White vs. Black.” “Woman vs. Men.” These are just some of the continually agitated divides in our society that have recently sprouted into riots and protests that sometimes display violence towards bystanders, destruction of personal property and profane social conduct towards others.
We should not overlook that there are very real political and social issues to be addressed in the above described societal relationships. The mischiefs of the Spirit of Party often find the most fertile ground where real or perceived social inequalities exist. Additionally, peaceful protests that help elevate issues within society to a level of national discussion are different in nature from riots and protests that disregard the law and the rights of others.
Washington stated that while the Spirit of Party can exist in all forms of government, it reaches its “greatest rankness” in democratic governments and is its “worst enemy.” While he identified the issue, Washington also provided us with an answer. He instructed us that:
“The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations.”
Because politics touches on issues of deep and impactful consequence in our lives, we are bound to carry emotions into our deliberations and that is only human. Furthermore, our debates are bound to become contentious at times. But where the Spirit of Party exploits and further agitates relational divides for selfish ambition, our conduct should always aim to focus people on what unites us. Until we begin to actively take steps to uproot weeds of tension and sow seeds of unity, our cultivated fields of jealousies and animosities will continue to lead to division and discord.