The season to remember Washington’s wisdom on parties
By Sophie Heinsohn
The author outside the Maryland State House in 2017 while working as a legislative assistant. Photos provided by the author.
Locals are still talking about the impression George Washington made 230 years ago this May upon his famous visit to our fine state; it is with such a historical perspective that we consider the wisdom of our first president regarding the nature of political parties. These entities have become a natural part of the political process, but they are not a necessary part of our government — and, according to Washington, they can even be dangerous. In his Farewell Address in 1796, he identified how they were potentially problematic.
“However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
Washington was not unaware of the certain charms political parties might possess, or their “popular ends” — and today, they do serve many of these ends. Perhaps it is enticing to have a cultural group to whom one relates. There is also the ease of voting for someone because of the (R) or (D) after their name. Especially in “smaller” races, this is tempting, but it is perhaps even more dangerous. Local races are vital to our daily lives. National races get the pomp and circumstance, but the local school board, state representatives and other state and local officials have as much, if not more, of an impact on most Americans’ daily lives. Voting down ballot matters!
Washington gave several points of concern with regard to political parties. The first was that political parties could become “potent engines” — a euphemism for big government. Ahem … “central committee” is one phrase that comes to mind. This group is elected, based on party affiliation, to make decisions at high levels. Interestingly, this is a small group of people with enormous power — rather like what our Constitution was meant to prevent.
Central committees are made up of a group of a few who make decisions for that branch of their party (state, national, etc.) There is power concentrated within this small group, who also gain influence, money, etc., that enables them to continue usurping power from both the party and the reins of government as a whole.
For example, due to the pandemic, the state of Virginia’s Republican Party has been looking at alternative means for electing primary candidates. Part of the discussion included votes being cast by delegates, not constituents, usurping further power from the people, centralizing it with the few. This is a bipartisan tendency, and it illustrates the point of how political party leaders, central committee or not, can take over the nomination process.
If you were to search “central committee” you might also find results like “Central Committee of the Communist Party,” or of the Soviet Party. Is that the example of we want our leaders emulating? Central committees are not necessarily bad, but it should give us pause that they are a shared feature of communist parties. The biggest concern is that they do centralize power. Although they can serve a good purpose of leadership within the party, they should be viewed with a grain of salt.
Potent engines our parties have indeed become, at the hands of, as he forewarned, the “cunning, ambitious and unprincipled.” There is a saying from Lord Acton: “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Whether one enters politics with a propensity for corruption, I cannot say for certain. There are those who believe this, and I dare say there are those of whom this is true. Regardless of motive, there is danger in having so much power, which Washington and our Founding Fathers identified.
The author on a trip to the White House with her parents, several years ago.
According to Washington, this corruptive power inherent in political parties is tied up in another danger, the creation of factions that divide the nation: as we the people are pitted against each other, government grows stronger. “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.”
Absolute power, we know, is bad, and when the policy sword swings from political parties, it turns us to trust in political parties and “leaders” rather than our fellow Americans, principles and moral compass. Factions distance Americans from other Americans. Where we should be united in love and patriotism for our nation, we are instead divided by loyalty and blind devotion to political parties. Scripture warns against division: “And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand” (Mark 3:25, English Standard Version).
This division caused by political parties results in problem-based ideas that are in opposition to another party’s platform rather than solution-based ideas for the good of our nation and our principles.
There are more opportunities for us to grow when we are interacting with those from other perspectives. There are many ways I could say this, but as a good homeschooler, will rely on Schoolhouse Rock to say it for me. (Sing with me!)
To the great American melting pot.
The great American melting pot.
Ooh, what a stew, red, white, and blue
One of my hobbies happens to be cooking. (This is not a comment on how good or bad my cooking is; it is simply an expression of one of my less nerdy attributes.) Since a stew is all mixed together as I dislike peas, if the cook has put peas in my stew, I have to eat them along with my potatoes. This is also a very good reason to take on some of the cooking in your house if you do not already. Then you get to choose the veggies for dinner!
Red, white and blue is much the same way. Whether you be the red of the Republicans, the blue of the Democrats or neither, our flag has room for us all.
It was just a few years after Betsy Ross made her flag when George Washington would make his speech. Already, he was seeing the evidence of political factions within his own cabinet! Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson did not see eye to eye. There were a whole seven inches between them. Joking aside, these two men had different perspectives about, well, almost everything. They serve as a strong warning against political parties, but they also represent one thing that is lacking today: individual knowledge of the issues and candidates. We are too quick to follow what the media says, what our favorite pundit spouts off or the (R) or (D).
America was not founded as a nation of followers but of leaders. We, too, must lead. And I’m not talking about posting a passionate rant on Facebook. I have yet to hear someone was converted to a new way of thinking by a Facebook post.
We all have opportunities to lead by researching and voting down ballot, for one. Investigate the candidates and their positions rather than voting because of their political party affiliation. Although I would advocate for no political parties, since we are currently doomed to have them, become active in yours. Though the reins higher up are usurped, there are many opportunities locally to be involved and make a difference, exemplifying through our leadership the careful research that should be employed.
Finally, do you have a neighbor of the opposite party affiliation? They, like you, have principles and values they hold dear. Too often we view an issue as having only two sides, like a coin. What if it were a die instead? It may be that neither party has the right solution, but they are too blinded by rivalries and contention to provide results. Worse yet, perhaps they do not want to find a real solution but rather enjoy dangling issues before their constituents like a carrot that leads us to the voting booth.
Instead, we can take the opportunity to unite with a neighbor and a good cup of coffee (certainly not tea!) to discuss the issues, understand other ideas and find the best solution in the middle. This is where meaningful change begins.
What if we became values-based voters? What if we voted on principle? This is what I want and hope most Americans want. We can do it! But to do so, we must become leaders — the humble kind that serves one another rather than looking down on each other. And we must begin to act and vote outside of the restrictions of our political parties so that they do not continue to wield the power to divide us.
Hailing from Charleston originally, Sophie has lived up and down the Eastern Seaboard, which fostered an interest in history and its present-day cultural implications. With a bachelor’s degree in government from Liberty University, Sophie is now pursuing a master’s in writing and looks forward to merging these passions in the future.