Sunday :: Jun 5, 2005

Through A Glass House Darkly


by pessimist

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.

The Parties Are Over

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.

Here every portion of our country finds the most commanding motives for carefully guarding and preserving the union of the whole. The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But as it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed, it is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts. For this you have every inducement of sympathy and interest.

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.
However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion. All obstructions to the execution of the laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.
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.
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 ... the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it. It 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 part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.
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 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.

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, ...
He who blinded by ambition, raises himself to a position whence he cannot mount higher, must thereafter fall with the greatest loss. - Niccolo Machiavelli
the next Montesquieu, ...
The love of democracy is that of equality. - Charles de Montesquieu
... the next Bismarck, ...
Beware of sentimental alliances where the consciousness of good deeds is the only compensation for noble sacrifices. Anyone who has ever looked into the glazed eyes of a soldier dying on the battlefield will think hard before starting a war. - Otto von Bismarck
... the next Jefferson, ...
An honest man can feel no pleasure in the exercise of power over his fellow citizens. - Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Melish, January 13, 1813
... 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.
To the efficacy and permanency of your Union, a government for the whole is indispensable. No alliance, however strict, between the parts can be an adequate substitute; they must inevitably experience the infractions and interruptions which all alliances in all times have experienced. These considerations speak a persuasive language to every reflecting and virtuous mind, and exhibit the continuance of the Union as a primary object of patriotic desire.

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.
You don't have to adopt an entire party platform, in any case a kind of nineteenth century exercise that has become basically meaningless. You can write your own platform. You can be a party of one. And that is increasingly what millions of Americans are becoming.
In contemplating the causes which may disturb our Union, it occurs as matter of serious concern that any ground should have been furnished for characterizing parties by geographical discriminations, Northern and Southern, Atlantic and Western; whence designing men may endeavor to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views. One of the expedients of party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.
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.
It is important, likewise, that the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration, to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism. The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power, by dividing and distributing it into different depositaries, and constituting each the guardian of the public weal against invasions by the others, has been evinced by experiments ancient and modern; some of them in our country and under our own eyes. To preserve them must be as necessary as to institute them. If, in the opinion of the people, the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed. The precedent must always greatly overbalance in permanent evil any partial or transient benefit, which the use can at any time yield.
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.
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them.
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.
Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct; and can it be, that good policy does not equally enjoin it? It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no distant period, a great nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. Who can doubt that, in the course of time and things, the fruits of such a plan would richly repay any temporary advantages which might be lost by a steady adherence to it?

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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