February 16, 2012 in POLITRICKS
Part 1 – “The danger of parties,” The Left-Right Paradigm
Published in LareDOS, February issue, p.44
George Washington is arguably the most highly regarded and revered American figure in our history. A man of great stature, who both figuratively and literally towered over his contemporaries, he is often written about and spoken of in legendary terms.
Myth and embellishment aside, Washington did wield a great deal of political clout in his day, and in light of the month’s festivities in honor of Washington’s Birthday, it seems appropriate to take some time and focus in on the man’s final words to his country as President—a message that is as relevant today, over 200 years later, as it has ever been.
In perhaps his best known public address, George Washington left the American public with a prophetic admonition. While in office, Washington witnessed the development of certain public policies which, if continued, he believed would weaken our country. In short, there were three principal areas of concern in his address: (1) the accumulation of debt, (2) follies in foreign policy and an overgrown military establishment, and (3) the danger of political parties. It is fairly plain to see how all three issues put forth by Washington in 1796 fit into today’s politics—and all three, I believe, deserve special attention.
Part 1 – “The danger of parties,” The Left-Right Paradigm
I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the state… 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…
In today’s political arena, it has become necessary to belong to one of two major political parties to be effectively engaged in any part of the process. Lest ye be shunned to the political margins, you are essentially forced to choose a side. Are you a Democrat—a “liberal,” with all the assumptions that it carries, or a Republican—a “conservative,” with its own implications? The main-line alternative, an Independent, as viewed from the perspective of the two-party system, carries with it an aura of pretension—someone who can’t quite make up their mind and pick a side.
For many, identification with a political party is a life-long tradition, even spanning several generations. It becomes so ingrained that the idea of supporting candidates or policies of the opposing party is met with repulsion—anathema to the core of a defined political identity. In this way, by associating with a particular party and all its ideological baggage, you give up part, perhaps all, of your own political individuality.
Once you have accepted labels of either “liberal” or “conservative,” chosen Left or Right, you have consented to a merger of political and personal identity which inevitably shapes perception. The way in which news and information is received is then parsed and filtered through either a Left or Right lens.
This has been true throughout our country’s history for as long as political parties have flourished, but we need not look any further than the partisan politics of the last decade for a clear cut example.
The most controversial and constitutionally egregious policies executed by the Bush administration during its tenure (the creation of Homeland Security, the passage of the Patriot Act, Guantanamo Bay, undeclared wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) were met with a great deal of hostility from the so-called “Left”. While it is true that these policies were conceived, and thrived, with the support of leadership from both Republican and Democratic parties, President Bush was routinely villainized by the Left, and rightfully so, for overstepping the bounds of his executive authority.
Flash forward to present day—we have a President in Barack Obama who successfully campaigned for the office on the promise he would reverse the course of the previous administration and has, in actuality, done anything but. The current administration has not only continued in those same policies, it has, in many ways, strengthened them—upping the ante to include the indefinite detention by military police (see NDAA) and outright assassination (through drone strikes) of American citizens.
It stands to reason that the same group of people (the “Left”) who blasted President Bush for his blatant disregard of constitutional boundaries would be just as upset, vocal and active in opposing Obama—perhaps even more so, given the betrayal. However, this is evidently not the case.
Opinion polls suggest that the Democratic Party and its base of supporters have shifted positions right along with the President.
According to the Pew Research center, 64% of Democrats supported the decision to close down the military prison in Guantanamo Bay in the early part of 2009, when it was believed the President still had the intention to do so. Today, as President Obama defends the need for the camp, a Washington Post-ABC News poll shows 67% of Democrats now favor keeping Guantanamo Bay open for business.
This same poll also reveals that a large majority of “liberal-Democrats”, a whopping 77%, approve of the President’s use of unmanned predator drones – the sort used to drop a missile on unsuspecting victims. Support then dips only slightly (73%) when the crosshairs are aimed at American citizens—a policy which would surely be scorned by Democrats if occurring during a Republican presidency.
In the interest of fairness, it should be noted that the same holds true when the political roles are reversed. In the year 2000, George W. Bush ran for President based on a platform of a “humble foreign policy,” and “no nation-building,” criticizing then President Clinton for his overseas adventurism.
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.
Memories are short, and there appears to be no room for principles in this kind of party-driven system.
The ease in which the “party man” executes these mental gymnastics, juggling between two diametrically opposed beliefs, is truly disturbing. This has created an environment in which public opinion has become dangerously malleable to the will of party leaders—the ultimate goal being not the preservation of deeply held political ideals or convictions but the “domination of one faction over another.”
As long the party is “winning,” members of the party and those who identify with it have their concerns assuaged—no need to worry over the details, the country is in good hands after all, now that the “other party” is out of office.
It seems to me that the divisiveness of the party system, as it exists today, has served primarily to distract from the true nature of the political and governmental hierarchy. Over the last century, regardless of which party has been in power, we have seen a push toward the same ends—one which Washington would surely recognize as a “frightful despotism”: the expansion of government, a reliance on deficit financing, and the promotion of warfare and welfare, differing only in either the social or corporate variety. While the rhetoric within the parties differs, actual public policy undoubtedly has not.
We have allowed ourselves and our country to be made a caricature of Blue and Red States, “enfeebled,” as Washington described, by a false left-right paradigm—a mental construct recognized early on by our nation’s first president, 200 years ago, as a way to box-in political dialogue and diminish liberty.
While political parties are certainly not going away, it is imperative that we, as active participants in our republic, look beyond the veil of left-right partisan politics that shrouds our nation’s discourse. Careful attention deserves to be given to the merit of actual policy, not rhetoric, enacted by our elected officials, regardless of party.
The sooner we heed Washington’s words regarding the dangers of political parties, the better off we’ll be. The simple truth is—there is no Left or Right. There is only Right and Wrong. There is Constitutional and Unconstitutional. Labels like “liberal” or “conservative,” Republican or Democrat, are just that—labels, and we can shed them any time we choose.