What Would George Washington Do?
What we observe today with Donald Trump as a nominee, and Mitch McConnell obstructing our Constitution by blocking Obama’s candidate for the Supreme Court, is an echo of past times in which our country has seen the ugly side of ideological extremism. We can hark back to the earliest days of our republic to see deep rifts between political factions that formalized into parties battling for our future. Tribalism has always been with us.
In his 1796 farewell address, George Washington warned that the rise of Party politics that he was witnessing:
“... 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 party against another, foments occasional riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions...”
Our Founding Fathers, who wished to create “not a system of party government under a constitution but rather a constitutional government that would check and control parties”, would be appalled at what modern American politics has become. Their greatest fears have become reality as a reality TV star is taken seriously as a presidential candidate.
Washington’s specific concern was the increasingly hostile polarization between the Federalists and the Democrat-Republicans (no relationship at all to today’s parties). The parallel to current events is enlightening for its similarities and differences.
At stake then were two vastly different views of how America’s future would unfold. Federalists, embodied in Alexander Hamilton, advocated for a strong central government capable of building a nation still in the vulnerable stage of infancy and protecting America’s growing business interests at home and abroad. Federalists wanted to strengthen ties to Britain. The Democrat-Republicans (anti-Federalists) championed by Thomas Jefferson, feared that a strong central government would return the new country to monarchy. The anti-Federalists pined more for an agrarian society than an industrial one, and wished to align the United States more with revolutionary France than with Britain.
Jefferson claimed the Federalists were for the “opulent” classes while he and his supporters were for “the mass of the people.”
This deep divide was one of Washington’s primary worries upon leaving office. In that same address of 1796, he further warned that political parties could:
“...become potent engines by which . . . unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.”
Parallels and Differences
Can anybody read that warning from Washington about unprincipled men usurping the reins of government and not think of Donald Trump? Can anybody read those words from Jefferson about the “opulent class” and “mass of the people” and not think of the modern versions of the GOP and Democrats? But the parallels are not perfect by any means; and those differences are telling.
The biggest divergence between then and now is how the two sides view the role of central government. With the glaring exception of a large military, the party of big business today disdains big government. The GOP in simple terms supports the wealthy, with the idea that by doing so all sectors of society benefit. This is the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats. Low taxes, less regulation, small government, unfettered capitalism and laws favoring Wall Street over Main Street are all central to the modern Republican Party. This GOP is an offspring of Federalist Party (benefitting the “opulent class”), which ironically began as a means of promoting a strong central government, the antithesis of the GOP.
Democrats, the descendent of the anti-Federalists, again in simple terms, advocate for higher taxes on the rich, more regulation, social programs benefiting the poor, and an emphasis on social justice. With equal irony, the anti-Federalists today in the form of Democrats (“mass of the people”) advocate for a strong central government, the precise opposite of what Thomas Jefferson wanted for the country.
So, while the two sides have flip-flopped on the fundamental nature of states’ rights and role of the federal government, they have been consistent on the other foundational ideologies that can be simplified down to liberal and conservative. In the past, conservatives promoted a strong federal government and liberals advocated for dispersed federal power. The opposite is now true, but what attributes otherwise define liberal and conservative remain fairly constant.
This divide between left and right contains within it a deep irony. American liberalism is centered on the idea of social justice, free speech, freedom of religion, celebration of diversity, and an individual’s fundamental right to free expression, without fear of reprisal or being ostracized. As I have written elsewhere this ideal is subverted by the rise of political correctness, particularly on college campuses. But as an ideology, liberalism is consistent with the promotion of LGBT rights, keeping religion out of politics, and advocating for the poor.
American conservativism on the other hand is founded on three basic principles that contrast sharply with leftist philosophy: liberty and freedom from restrictions of arbitrary force; tradition and order, and belief in god. As with liberals, these ideals are often undermined in practice. A fourth tenet is often cited here, the rule of law, but in reality both sides claim that, and both liberals and conservatives seem to apply this principle only when convenient to their cause.
But in looking at these opposing ideologies, we come to the deep irony referenced earlier. The left wants a big central government, but a small military and a government that stays out of our personal lives, bedrooms and doctors’ offices. The right wants a small government, but promotes a big military and seeks government influence to regulate reproductive choice, sex acts in our bedroom (12 states still have anti-sodomy statutes in force), what bathrooms we can use, and religion in politics to promote a Christian agenda (a majority of conservatives believe the United States is or should be a Christian nation).
Let’s be clear then: both liberals and conservatives want a strong or big government when suited to their causes and a weak or small government when government interference is counter to those causes. They simply want big and small government for opposing purposes. Neither side can claim ideological purity here; which brings me back to Federalists and anti-Federalists. Given the obvious hypocrisy on both left and right on the role of the central government, we see more clearly the genealogy of today’s Parties, with the GOP-aligned cleanly with Federalists and Democrats clearly the progeny of the anti-Federalists. We need not worry ourselves about the reversal in opinions about central government because both sides really claim both sides of this issue.
Room for Hope
This now-obvious parallel between the growing animosity between right and left today and with the Federalists and anti-Federalists in the late 1700s actually gives us some measure of hope. We’ve been here before, right at the beginning, and we’re still standing today.
We seem to cycle through periods of extreme polarization. In the decade following 1830, we had extreme partisanship between the Jacksonians and Whigs. The source of animosity was the same as always (with the added bonus of slavery thrown in): Jacksonian Democrats favored states’ rights and resented any Federal government intrusion into social and economic affairs. Jacksonians represented the “common man” and the poor “living off the land.” In contrast, Whigs were typically wealthy industrialists and nationalists who advocated for a strong central government. The sides fought about religious freedom. Sound familiar?
As a historic aside, we should mention that the Whigs eventually died on the issue of slavery, with the northern contingent opposed to that institution and the southern faction in favor of slavery. This split in the Whigs is what led to the formation of the Republican Party, with Abraham Lincoln as the first presidential candidate of the new Party.
The Jackson-Whig battle is the echo sound of history repeating itself, a replay of the fight between Federalists and anti-Federalists. And the fight never ended, with extreme partisanship rearing its ugly head again in the Civil War, Vietnam War, the McCarthy era, and the civil rights movement. Each time feels like the worst, like the country is being pulled apart, that the end is near. That is precisely why historic perspective is important. The basic issues remain the same as we cycle through periods of greater or lesser tolerance and extremism. We will certainly cycle through this latest period of angst.
We are clearly in a time of ascending intolerance. The likes of Sarah Palin, Mitch McConnell, George W. Bush, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Donald Trump represent the right’s radical embrace of extreme partisanship. But as bad as this feels, as close to the Apocalypse as this seems, take solace in knowing that we’ve experienced this radicalism previously and survived. Supporters of Jefferson and Hamilton hated each other passionately. Those behind Andrew Jackson and supporters of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster were violent enemies. These opposing forces were every bit as far apart or more than what we see in the vast abyss separating Clinton and Trump. And yet here we are.
Seen from the high perch of history, the future is not as bleak as the present would indicate. In fact, there may be room for actual optimism. It could well be that if Trump loses, and loses badly, we could be witnessing the nadir of this latest cycle of extremism, which could die along with Trump’s megalomaniac dreams. Trump is the natural consequence of the GOP embrace of ignorance as a virtue mixing with obstructionism as a form of patriotism; like a mushroom is a natural consequence of darkness and dung. He does not represent a movement; he is nothing but the product of decay, a process that could well be reaching its end. Few people outside the world of historians remember Henry Clay; fewer will remember Trump. He will be a footnoted curiosity marking the beginning of the end of right-wing ascendancy in American politics. There is room for hope.
Dr. Jeff Schweitzer is a marine biologist, consultant and internationally recognized authority in ethics, conservation and development. He is the author of five books including Calorie Wars: Fat, Fact and Fiction (July 2011), and A New Moral Code (2010). Dr. Schweitzer has spoken at numerous international conferences in Asia, Russia, Europe and the United States.Dr. Schweitzer's work is based on his desire to introduce a stronger set of ethics into American efforts to improve the human condition worldwide. He has been instrumental in designing programs that demonstrate how third world development and protecting our resources are compatible goals. His vision is to inspire a framework that ensures that humans can grow and prosper indefinitely in a healthy environment.Formerly, Dr. Schweitzer served as an Assistant Director for International Affairs in the Office of Science and Technology Policy under former President Clinton. Prior to that, Dr. Schweitzer served as the Chief Environmental Officer at the State Department's Agency for International Development. In that role, he founded the multi-agency International Cooperative Biodiversity Group Program, a U.S. Government that promoted conservation through rational economic use of natural resources.Dr. Schweitzer began his scientific career in the field of marine biology. He earned his Ph.D. from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. He expanded his research at the Center for Learning and Memory at the University of California, Irvine. While at U.C. Irvine he was awarded the Science, Engineering and Diplomacy Fellowship from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.Dr. Schweitzer is a pilot and he founded and edited the Malibu Mirage, an aviation magazine dedicated to pilots flying these single-engine airplanes. He and his wife Sally are avid SCUBA divers and they travel widely to see new wildlife, never far from their roots as marine scientists..To learn more about Dr Schweitzer, visit his website at http://www.JeffSchweitzer.com.
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