Through A Glass House Darkly
Editor's notes - I have radically altered the content order of this post so as to make more sense - to my personal standards - of the many good points Senator Hart makes in his essay. It was my considered opinion that the Senator was musing disconnectedly in a stream-of-consciousness style, and I felt that he wasn't getting a coherent message across as a result. Therefore, while the wording below is that of Senator Hart, the organization of the wording is mine alone. Any errors in the presentation of his meaning and content are solely my responsibility. I strongly invite all to read his original post as linked below for comparison.
Extended italic sections subsequent to this one are excerpts from President George Washinton's Farewell Address of 1796.
America's founders, steeped in the ancient Greek and Roman republican ideal, wanted their new fellow citizens to be concerned with the commonwealth. One of the highest compliments for a citizen of the founding era was to be called 'disinterested'. It meant not interested in one's own concerns at the expense of the commonwealth. The founders held the quaint notion that if we were all 'concerned', or 'interested', in what we held in common, we would all benefit individually.
Citizens, by birth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections. The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together; the independence and liberty you possess are the work of joint counsels, and joint efforts of common dangers, sufferings, and successes. But these considerations, however powerfully they address themselves to your sensibility, are greatly outweighed by those which apply more immediately to your interest.
[Political] Parties seemed too much like the dreaded 'factions' (what today we would call interest groups) that had arisen in Europe, concerned more with their own good than the common good. The more people fell into or formed narrow or special interest groups, the less they would be committed to the ideal of the new republic, that which was held in common by all, and over which all were sovereign. Likewise, the more a citizen was interested in getting only what was best for him and those like him, the more corrupt the American republic would become.
But, by the late eighteenth century, parties arose, largely dividing between the Federalists led by Hamilton, who saw the need for a strong central or national government with a national bank and national army - and the Republicans led by Jefferson, who suspected the power of the state and preferred local authority and local control. As the Federalists were by and large Northern merchants and traders and the Republicans were by and large Southern landowners and farmers, the issue of slavery, unresolved in the founding era and documents, also came forcefully into play.
Over the following two centuries the industrial revolution, the Civil War, and America's emergence as a world power all caused tidal waves and tectonic shifts in power structures and coalitions. Well before the twentieth century, the two major parties had come to exert hierarchical control over virtually all political processes, including the nomination of candidates for office at the national and state levels. They were the conduits for campaign financing, access to the media, dissemination of political information, the structuring of ideas and policies, and the exercise of political discipline.
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.
Over and beyond this traditional party-based struggle for power is the greater tsunami overtaking the very nature of partisan politics itself. The old party structures are becoming obsolete. Because most of our founders did not trust the idea of political parties, they came into existence only reluctantly. In recent years, however, the parties' entire role, and therefore their power, has been collapsing. They are being replaced by shifting coalitions that are forming and reforming constantly. The prize of future power will go to the next Machiavelli, ...
the next Montesquieu, ...
... the next Bismarck, ...
... the next Jefferson, ...
... who both appreciates, before all others, that we are in a totally new political age, an age beyond traditional political parties, and then creates the next political paradigm.
It is, indeed, little else than a name, where the government is too feeble to withstand the enterprises of faction, to confine each member of the society within the limits prescribed by the laws, and to maintain all in the secure and tranquil enjoyment of the rights of person and property. Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty. The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government. But the Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government. We are authorized to hope that a proper organization of the whole with the auxiliary agency of governments for the respective subdivisions, will afford a happy issue to the experiment. With such powerful and obvious motives to union, affecting all parts of our country, while experience shall not have demonstrated its impracticability, there will always be reason to distrust the patriotism of those who in any quarter may endeavor to weaken its bands.
Except for the ideologically devout, voters likewise are shaking loose the bonds of party loyalty and more and more joining the third party, the independents, either figuratively or literally. American political parties, as we have known them for two centuries, are disintegrating. To a degree, the process becomes self-fulfilling. As voters less and less need the party to tell them what to think and whom to vote for, the parties more and more retreat to their hardcore ideological bases, thus further alienating mainstream voters who are less doctrinaire partisans and more eclectic individuals.
Out of power, the watchword among Democrats, and many independents, is: "I don't know what the Democrats stands for." That's because the Party's old coalition - traditional liberals, labor, minorities, women, environmentalists, and internationalists - is in the process of disappearing and a new one has yet to be formed. Millions of people wait to hear what the twenty-first century Democratic Party stands for, and Democratic Party 'leaders' are not saying until they see what the new coalition is going to look like. They are afraid of taking principled stands for fear of alienating some group they think they need. So there is a kind of stand-off. Voters afloat want to hear what the Party has to say, and the Party is trying to find out what they want to hear.
But many traditional Republicans don't know what their Party stands for either. It used to stand for balanced budgets, resistance to foreign entanglement, laissez faire economics, smaller government, and individual freedom. Not any more. That old coalition has disappeared as well. The new Republican Party stands for big government, huge deficits, pre-emptive warfare, massive nation-building, neo-imperialism in the Middle East, intrusion on your privacy, and a semi-official state religion dictated by fundamentalist ministers. This new Republican Party is merely a temporary diversion because its new political base is too far out of step with mainstream America, an America which includes the traditional Republican base. The increasingly dogmatic, rigid, orthodox, intolerant neo-Republican party, a cabal that seems intent only on consolidating political power in fewer and fewer hands, reducing its elected officials and judges to disciplined automatons, protecting corporate excess, secret policy making, and forcing all of us to become fundamentalist Christians of the sort that would make even John Calvin appear liberal.
Democrats used to be the Nanny Party in the secular realm; the neo-Republicans have become the Nanny Party in the religious realm. Democrats, however, are sadly mistaken if they rely on this fact to assume that the power pendulum will automatically swing back to them. Until the dust settles metaphorically and politically from 9.11, the neo-Republican Party will hold an advantage where security is concerned, despite its almost totally inept performance on homeland security and the hornet's nest of radical fundamentalism it has thoughtlessly kicked open in the Arab world. But that advantage will also not last very long, and Democrats would be well-advised to use this time, which they so far have not done, to create a sweeping new understanding of security and how to obtain it in the 21st century.
While, then, every part of our country thus feels an immediate and particular interest in union, all the parts combined cannot fail to find in the united mass of means and efforts greater strength, greater resource, proportionably greater security from external danger, a less frequent interruption of their peace by foreign nations... Hence, likewise, they will avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.
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