H. Lee Cheek and Sean Busick
This commentary is co-authored by H. Lee Cheek Jr., professor of political science at East Georgia State College in Swainsboro, and Sean Busick, professor of history at Athens State University in Alabama. Cheek is a resident of Tybee Island.
America’s Founders didn’t agree on much. They were not a monolithic group of men. Also, some of the things they agreed on make us uncomfortable today. Those who are in the habit of quoting what “The Founders” considered gospel would do well to keep that in mind.
Here’s one thing most founders agreed on: political partisanship is unhealthy and dangerous for the country. They believed that republics were fragile and that civic virtue was necessary to prevent them from descending into anarchy or despotism.
Partisanship flourished where civic virtue was lacking. While partisanship divides us and threatens effective governance, civic virtue unites us as citizens with a common interest.
According to a famous story, when meeting Ben Franklin in Philadelphia in 1787, a woman asked him what the delegates to the Constitutional Convention had been busy creating. “Do we have a republic or a monarchy? she asked. Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
A threat from the beginning of the nation
The Constitution was designed to establish a republic that, like all republics, depended on civic virtue to survive. Citizens and elected officials should behave responsibly; if we care about our republic, we should place the good of the country above selfish aggrandizement, above partisanship.
The degree to which we are disconnected from the founders can easily be measured in our political partisanship. As humans, they have often failed to live up to their own ideals.
Yes, they decried the political parties, but they also divided into Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians and founded our first political parties. However, they at least tried to temper their partisanship with a civic spirit and were able to feel shame for their shortcomings.
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Early American politicians rarely campaigned for themselves, leaving this dirty work to their subordinates. For example, presidential hopefuls confidentially sought out supporters to endorse their candidacy and write political biographies of themselves for the public.
Our politicians do not know how to stop campaigning and might feel ashamed if it appears that they have taken a break from self-promotion and political warfare. Among the founders, it was an insult to be accused of partisanship or factionalism. We proudly advertise our partisanship on our apparel, bumper stickers and Facebook profiles.
In fact, some of our fellow citizens are becoming so attached to a new, more dangerous partisanship that they are willing to attempt to disrupt our democratic path in an effort to keep their party in power.
Disagreement makes good decisions
In “real world” terms of American politics, the Founders believed that civic virtue in a republic also required deliberation and compromise.
These qualities enable leaders and citizens to listen to the ideas of others. The Founders believed that disagreement was not only good, but the interaction of ideas actually provided the basis for making the decisions that were in the best interests of the country.
Our Constitutional Convention and subsequent State Ratification Conventions are the best example in the world of solving complex problems and compromising in the pursuit of a goal greater than self-interest.
George Washington warned us against partisanship in his farewell address, which is read in the Senate every year on his birthday. “Let me now . . . warn you in the most solemn manner of the ill effects of partisanship in general,” he wrote.
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Partisanship is the “worst enemy” of popular government. “It always serves to distract public councils and weaken public administration,” Washington warned. “He agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, stirs up animosity from one party against another, sometimes foments riot and insurrection. This opens the door to foreign influence and corruption. If we want to keep our republic, we must guard against our partisan impulses.
Successful governance is serious work and often requires deliberation and compromise for the common good. It’s not a sport, there shouldn’t be teams. Our fellow citizens are not our enemies and should not be. When politics becomes a game of winners and losers, we all lose.