In today’s America, an elected senator can’t even describe his political opponents as nice people without being hounded by those wanting to sacrifice him on the partisan alter. Disenchantment with both political parties is sky high. Government has become dysfunctional: at war with itself, fueled by 30-second news clips and reflexive loyalty or hatred based on the “D” or “R” attached to one’s name.
Several of the Founding Fathers warned about this exact political environment, viewing it as an evil that could threaten the life of the republic. We’ve become so accustomed to this cage-match mentality that it seems we fail to recognize its severity or how much better the country could be without a two-party system. Politicians and voters have talked about the need for bipartisanship so government can run efficiently for years — by now we should recognize it will not happen. If Americans still have faith in the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, they should break out of this intellectual and political jail cell by supporting and running as independents.
George Washington warned about “the baneful effects of the spirit of party,” calling it “truly their [Americans] worst enemy.” John Adams used especially prescient language, saying: “There is nothing I dread so much as a division of the Republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader and converting measures into opposition to each other. This … is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.”
Washington was so concerned about political parties that he devoted a major part of his Farewell Address to fighting against them. He cautioned that these parties are organized factions who seek to use the government to enact their agenda, “rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels, and modified by mutual interests.” These parties, he predicted, would attract “cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men” who will then end up “destroying afterwards the very engines, which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
He wasn’t talking just about the country dividing as later happened during the Civil War, but the actual conduct of politics — the politics of personal destruction and the politics of policy-wrecking instead of policy-making.
“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension … is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism,” Washington said.
James Madison had similar thoughts, spending a great deal of time warning about factionalism. In Federalist Paper No. 10, he warns of a future where factionalism “inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.” If anything has come to define our current two-party system, this is it.
Washington was especially worried about parties being founded on “geographical discriminations.” Today’s parties aren’t founded upon geography, but geography defines them. There are clear blue and red states and relatively few swing states that decide the fate of the country. It is rare when one party actually challenges the monopoly the other has on states it basically owns.
Finally, Madison foresaw that this factionalism would result in a fight over income redistribution. He actually predicted class warfare. “Every shilling with which they [the victor] overburden the inferior number, is a shilling saved for their own pockets,” he said. Whether you view the Democrats as confiscating money from the wealthy to give to the poor or the Republicans as catering to the rich, this is the exact scenario Madison feared. Loyalty to political parties is often not based on who will improve the economy as a whole, but as a way of widening personal wallets without any regard for the greater dynamics at play.