Monday, February 17, 2020

George Washington

“How in the world did we get from the Federalist Papers to the edited transcripts?” That famous question, by a member of the House Judiciary Committee in 1974, reflected the bizarre sense of political decline that accompanied the tragic presidency of Richard Nixon. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Karl Marx famously wrote that "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce," Nixon was a truly tragic figure. Since then, however, we have moved on to the farce. Well we might ask today, on the Father of our Country's official birthday, "“How in the world did we get from George Washington to the 45th President of the United States?” 

In observance of Washington's Birthday ("Presidents Day"), the History channel is offering a 3-part miniseries, dramatizing the story of our first president.  I watched the first part last night, which dealt with what we might call Washington's pre-history, his development as a colonial soldier and as a Virginia farmer and businessman, including some early lessons about the flaws of the mighty British Empire's officials. 

George Washington (1732-1799) was obviously a man of enormous talent and corresponding ambition. A man of his time. however, he was constrained by 18th-century mores to camouflage his ambition. Sadly we no longer inhabit such a society, and instead we reward and honor narcissism in our prominent persons, including our political leaders.

Likewise, Washington as Commander-in-Chief and later as President embodied a kind of quasi-kingly restraint in his personal and official behavior - a style that has long-since given way in American political culture to a Caesarist populism, with correspondingly predictable consequences.

The US Senate still observes the Washington's Birthday tradition of having one Senator read Washington's famous "Farewell Address" to the full Senate. If only they/we focused on the content as well as the ritual form of that famous "Address."

Among other things, Washington warned:

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.

Apparently, Washington could foresee the harm done to our national life by the kind of geographical-cultural cleavages (e.g., urban vs. rural, coast vs. "flyover") which now so divide our society.

Washington was not alone in the founding generation in an unfortunate under-appreciation of the almost necessary role of political parties in facilitating democratic governance. (In 1950, the American Political Science  Association famously called political parties "indispensable instruments of government" that "provide the electorate with a proper range of choice between alternatives  of action.')  Even so, Washington's familiar critique of party politics retains a certain relevance, as we contemplate the dangerous extremes contemporary hyper-partisanship can take us to - and the very real, resulting temptation to populist despotism, which we can observe increasingly taking hold right now:  

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 warning could clearly foresee the danger of such despotically oriented partisanship colluding with foreign influences, another harmful development we see so strikingly at work in the present crisis of our institutions.
Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), 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.
Finally, we should not forget Washington's challenge to the problematic attempt to try to build a successful society on a purely secular foundation:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. 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. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. ... And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

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