How our democracy eroded into a partisan power game

Leach, a Republican from Iowa, served in the House of Representatives from 1977 to 2007.


American political history can be traced from the framing of democratic constitutionalism to the challenge of the “Big Lie” and the narcissistic insurrection it precipitated. Comparing the philosophy and character traits of the first President of the United States with the last occupant of the White House could not be more relevant.

Several weeks before George Washington traveled to New York to take the oath at Federal Hall, he asked if James Madison would be traveling to Mount Vernon to review a draft inaugural address written by an assistant. Washington gave Madison the proposed speech and asked if he would comment. After retreating to another room and reviewing the text, Madison reported to Washington that it was “terrible.”

“Why?” Washington asked, and Madison explained that there were two major flaws: it lasted over an hour, which he believed the hearing of lawmakers would find intolerable; and, more importantly, it did not reflect the nature of the constitutional system that had just begun to unfold. It was too royal. As a result, Washington asked his compatriot in Virginia if he was considering presenting a different tact. Madison agreed and returned a few days later with a new project.

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Despite old-fashioned and at times convoluted rhetoric, Washington’s first inaugural address offers a revealing perspective of the partisan divisions that have metastasized in recent years.

The address begins with a paragraph that only the first president could have written. Indeed, no president or governor has ever started an inaugural address like Washington did. What he chose to acknowledge in Congress in Federal Hall was a litany of his own weaknesses: 1) that his abilities were limited by inferior endowments bestowed upon him by nature; 2) that he was not exercised in the civil administration; and 3) that during his years of decline he had suffered frequent damage to his health. In other words, the general who defeated one of the most powerful armies in history suggested he was inexperienced, lacking in intelligence, and in poor health.

Aside from this extraordinarily modest assessment of his personal abilities, Washington thoughtfully emphasized the need for the newly defined branches of government to work together. The presidency, he stressed, under the new Constitution, had an obligation to “propose” legislative initiatives while the power to legislate was clearly vested in Congress. Given the prospect that legislative turmoil could arise, he posed three ‘no’s’ about how public officials should avoid temptation: 1) there should be ‘no local biases’ interest groups and concerns local); 2) there should be “no separate views” (ie states should not be allowed to secede); and 3) there should be “no animosity between parties” (ie members of Congress should respect each other).

Continuing to grapple with motivation, Washington instead called on lawmakers to focus on meeting “immutable demands of private morality.” This singular advice may seem esoteric unrealistic. In fact, it is perhaps the most profound advice ever given to an elected official. What Washington, which distrusted only political parties, recommended lawmakers place a special emphasis on individual judgment driven by moral concerns rather than partisan conformity or selfish ambition.

As in other democracies, legislatures change over time, sometimes gradually, from time to time sharply.

When I entered Congress in January 1977, the two Capitol Hill parties held caucuses every three or four months where thought-provoking discussions were taking place on upcoming issues before Congress and on elections that might be imminent. The leaders of both parties as well as the majority of MPs generally worked constructively together, although the majority party tended to be somewhat arrogant at the committee level. By the time I left Congress three decades later, members of both legislative bodies, particularly the House of Representatives, had become increasingly disrespectful of the other party and its members. The Congress had, in effect, become “caucus-ized”.

Party caucuses have evolved into frequent closed-door meetings with attitudes more akin to a half-time football team than an orchestra where musicians play assorted instruments in sync. Instead of the art of governing, partisan goals discussed in caucuses came to revolve mainly around how the other side could be derailed rather than how the legislation could be improved. However, the oath of office taken by a public official is not a guarantee of party unity. It is a commitment to respect and defend the Constitution. Implicitly, the oath taken by lawmakers obliges members of Congress to abide by the separation of powers processes and the guidelines on individual rights in the Bill of Rights which have become broader as constitutional amendments have been passed.

As internal schisms developed, congressional dysfunction also increased. With a loss of mutual trust, members increasingly viewed their legislative work as the primary competence of political parties rather than Congress as a whole. Overwhelming partisanship has the effect of denying a constructive role to a full complement of lawmakers, thereby protecting millions of Americans from having their views taken into account in the legislative process.

Eight years after giving his first inaugural address, Washington expanded on the concerns he initially expressed in New York by issuing his farewell speech as he prepared to return to Mount Vernon. The farewell speech, which included input from Madison and later Alexander Hamilton, was never delivered in speech form. Rather, the address was published widely as a letter in the newspapers in 1796. Again, Washington advised its fellow citizens to avoid excessive partisanship and recognize the importance of identifying more with the national interest. than to states or cities. Citizens, he warned, should be wary of individuals who advocate secession or suggest the country was too big to be governed within its constitutional framework.

Whenever the national government has considered over the years to intervene militarily on other continents or at sea, historians and social critics have traditionally found reason to emphasize Washington’s legendary warning against alliances and policies. long term that could make the country vulnerable to foreign entanglements.

What is rarely noted are the deep concerns that Washington has also expressed over domestic intrigue, some of which had foreign influences. Washington may have had in mind aspects of the Shays Rebellion in Massachusetts (1786-87) that occurred prior to his assumption of the presidency and the Whiskey Rebellion (1791-94) soon after, but his concerns for the insurgency seem to go further. Accordingly, in his farewell speech, he carefully alerted his fellow citizens to the “cunning, ambitious and unscrupulous” leaders of political factions who seek to “subvert the power of the people” in order to “usurp them for themselves. reins of government ”.

Our first president made it clear to posterity that “the will of the nation” cannot be replaced by “the will of a party”, especially if it violates constitutional obligations. For Washington, political parties have too often sharpened the “spirit of vengeance”, agitated communities with unfounded jealousy, stirred up animosities, and sometimes fomented riots and insurgencies. On the other hand, Washington viewed the unity of governance, established by the Constitution, as a pillar of the edifice of independence and stability.

Amid the vast challenges of the 20th century, Washington’s concern for the insurgency probably seemed like an irrelevant footnote. In contrast, in this new millennium, its warnings resonate with contemporary relevance. Indeed, no warning to the American public could apply with more foresight to the January 6, 2021 insurgency on Capitol Hill than that issued 22 decades earlier by George Washington.

Abroad, the insurgency has transformed the way friends and enemies look at our governance model. Perhaps the most dangerous and enduring aspect of the insurgency concerns how a cunning president can in the eyes of his supporters legitimize violence with a narcissistic stamp of approval. One of these events can lead to others and precipitate imitated insurgencies in any State of the Union. The capital of our country could even be vulnerable to similar attacks. For 230 years, the Constitution has symbolized free people working together. Now this heralded tradition is being challenged from within.

From an early age, Washington pondered the subject of morality. At 16, he copied a small treatise composed by French Jesuits in 1595 and translated it into English. The treaty contained 110 rules of civil behavior which he was bound to study, perhaps as a duty of calligraphy and ethics. The last rule of civility said: “Work to keep alive in your womb that little spark of heavenly fire called consciousness.”

Today the spirit of America is on the test. When emotional partisanship threatens the very heart of our democracy, the public must insist that the ship of state be righted. One approach is to push candidates for a position to be publicly recognized, perhaps even to sign a civility pledge, noting that:

    1. The oath of office that elected officials are required to take is not an oath of party unity. It is a moral and legal commitment to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.
    2. The process is our most valuable product. How politics is practiced is often more important than the nature of the policies that take place.
    3. If elected, he / she will be a representative of the general public, not just those who may have voted for him or supported him financially.
    4. If all men and women are created equal, it follows that all points of view deserve to be listened to with respect and taken into account in the development of public policies.
    5. The national interest must always take precedence over local concerns or interest groups.
    6. The practice of religion should be protected as an individual right, but religious principles of particular denominations should never be legislated in such a way as to bind those who adhere to other denominational systems or ethical principles.
    7. Courts and legislatures should reconsider recent decisions on campaign finance and recognize that corporatism is not democracy. Mega campaign contributions, foreign or domestic, have no legitimate role in American elections.
    8. Polarization is not American style. Politicians must respect their opponents. They are rivals, not enemies.
    9. Civility matters. We are all connected and rely on each other.
    10. A nation without hatred must be a common goal.

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