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Outsiders vs. Insiders: George Washington’s warnings against faction are still prescient today

What if, as part of an academic exercise in a political science class, you were tasked with building a political party from scratch; how would you go about it?

“I’d build a big tent and invite everyone to join us inside,” someone might suggest. “I would put a copy of the Constitution on the wall and encourage everyone who supports strictly abiding by its clear language to get George Washingtononboard,” someone else offers.

The discussion heads south from there…

“I would announce that our party honors diversity and that everyone’s ethnicity, sexual preferences and gender identities would be honored and accepted with no questions asked,” answers a third (liberal) person. “I would demand that whoever wants to be in our party swear a holy oath to vote on only what the leaders are for,” utters another.

“I’d hold up a sign that says ‘We’re for everything!’ and promise everyone a say in what our party stands for,” someone chimes in. “Oh yeah, I would do just the opposite – I’d say ‘We’re for nothing!’ and leave it at that,” a wise guy blurts out, concluding the argument.

These are only potential responses to a hypothetical question yet it’s easy to see why the two American parties are having such a difficult time coming up with their own answers to the great mystery of politics and governing today. As last week’s debacle over Obamacare repeal amply revealed, the Democrats have settled on a strategy of complete and unanimous opposition to everything the GOP introduces and the miserable Republicans can’t settle on a single proposal that gets all of their people on the same page.

Bring your brooms because it’s a mess,” was the slogan of fictional congressional candidate Marty Huggins in the 2012 political satire movie The Campaign. In saying so, Huggins was referring to the “real” Congress – and if recent events are any indication, he was right.

For the average American citizen watching the melee in Washington it has to be off-putting at best and downright disgusting at worst. Loyal liberal Democrats are probably the happiest people in the land seeing their people so harmonious in saying “no” to every single overture by the Republicans. On the other hand conservatives and Republicans are likely furious over their party’s feeble inability to build a consensus despite having…well, a majority.

There will almost certainly be a reckoning at some point, though no one can predict with conviction whether the voters will actually reward the Democrats for their practical nothingness, punish all Republicans for the greater party’s futility or if only the GOP turncoats will feel the wrath.

Yes, Marty Huggins, it is a mess. No broom could sweep it up, either.

Pete Kasperowicz of the Washington Examiner reported Senator Ted Cruz said after the final failed Obamacare repeal vote last week, “’There are going to be a great many Americans who tonight feel a sense of betrayal, feel a sense of betrayal that politicians stood up and made a promise,’ Cruz said early Friday morning.

“’I tell you this, if you stand up and campaign and say we're going to repeal Obamacare, and you vote for Obamacare, those are not consistent,’ he said. ‘And the American people are entirely justified in saying, 'any politician who told me that and voted the other way didn't tell me the truth. They lied to me.'”

In his brief report Kasperowicz indicated Cruz wasn’t singling out Arizona Senator John McCain (who almost predictably cast the decisive “no” vote) for special censure but the implications are all the same. “Maverick” John McCain rode in again to sabotage any act of common sense that the vast majority of reasonable Republicans were in favor of.

Which brings us back to our political science class exercise – how to form a party?

First-among-equals Founding Father George Washington’s solution was to not build one at all. In his farewell address Washington warned against the evils of “faction” and ultimately ended friendships with several of his co-founders (most notably Thomas Jefferson and James Madison) over what he viewed as subterfuge party dealing against his initial administration.

Washington said in 1796, “I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.

“This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

“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…”

Washington’s was perhaps the last presidency where true political opponents and competing interests served side-by-side in setting policy, though many historians point to Abraham Lincoln’s famous “team of rivals” as the clearest illustration of a president keeping his friends close and his enemies closer.

Contemporary political experts speculated Donald Trump might take this approach in assembling his cabinet though it didn’t turn out that way. In the end Trump put together the most conservative group of department heads since Ronald Reagan. So much for the oft-repeated notion he’d campaign as a conservative Republican yet govern as a liberal Democrat.

The parties themselves appear to be searching for a clear identity apart from Trump but it hasn’t resulted in each one standing for an identifiable set of principles. Despite offering their “Better Deal” last week Democrats only seem interested in opposing Trump and the Republicans. Instead of offering an alternative set of proposals to the impending Obamacare implosion Democrats just sit in a circle and complain – and oppose.

Even the so-called “red state” Democrats are in lock-step with the Chuck Schumers, Elizabeth Warrens and Al Frankens of the Senate.

Likewise the Republicans aren’t exactly championing conservative ideology either. The best that can be said for them is they’re somewhat conservative and the rest are mushy-centrist and barely not Democrats.

There are many who suggest the bloviating and grandstanding Democrats should be left to their own devices. George Neumayr wrote last week in The American Spectator, “In a time of terrorism, the American people are not going to punish at the polls a commander-in-chief for insufficiently prizing political correctness. If anything, the hidden Trump vote will increase. Perhaps most parents don’t want to say this out loud, but the onslaught of transgender propaganda scares the hell out of them. They don’t want their sons to grow up to be mutilated ‘women.’ And most taxpayers don’t want to pay for this grotesque delusion.

“To these Americans, the Dems lift up their middle finger and declare them ‘intolerant.’ This gives Trump an enormous political advantage. With very little effort, he can pick off uneasy religious voters in the center while pulling down almost all of them on the right.”

In other words, Trump and the Republicans can win on legislation and on public opinion by simply setting a set of principles that they stand for and then following them to the letter.

In most circles that’s known as a party platform. But when push comes to shove the platform is set every four years at the party convention and then forgotten about until the next national gathering.

Meanwhile the Democrats defend anything that isn’t Trump; and the Republicans…well, who knows what they stand for? Are they merely better managers of the entrenched welfare state or do they really represent the old-fashioned concept that government serves the people and legislators have a responsibility to protect individual rights and liberties?

There is no obvious answer to the question of how to build a party, but the Democrats and Republicans are showing us clear notions on what not to do. Both parties are proving George Washington was correct – self-interested “factions” lead to unending bickering and ultimately to despotism.

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