Americans have hated partisanship itself as long as there has been political competition between factions.
By his second term in office in the mid-1790s, President George Washington faced an organized political opponent in a democratic-republican society spread across the United States.
“There was the Society for the Preservation of Liberty in Virginia, the Sons of St. Tammany and the Democratic Society in New York, the Constitutional Society, the Political Research Society, the German Republican Society in Boston, and the Pennsylvania Democratic Society in Philadelphia,” historian Susan Dunn notes in The Second Revolution of 1800. ism. “
After the Whiskey Rebellion of the early 1790s, Washington accused these societies of, as Dunne puts it, “fostering discord and fostering disorder.” He accused them of spreading “heinous doctrines aimed at poisoning and discontenting people’s minds.” In many ways, Washington’s farewell plea to avoid factionalism, the “harmful effects of partisan spirit,” was a response to the partisan sentiment that prevailed in the final years of the administration.
Others are reading…
Speaking of which, Thomas Jefferson was a zealous partisan. By 1797, he had emerged as the leader of the Democratic-Republican opposition to the Adams government. In his own words, he wanted to “sink federalism into an abyss without resurrection.” But in his inaugural address, Mr. Jefferson also wanted the American people to put partisanship aside and come together as one: “We’ve called like-minded brothers by different names,” Jefferson wrote. “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”
This hatred of factions and a desire for unity runs throughout American history to this day. Americans, including their political leaders, have a deep aversion to partisanship and political parties, even though they continue to be a political and partisan nation.
I was reminded of all this while reading a recent opinion essay by Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. In it, he dreamed of a world completely free of politics and partisanship, of “common sense solutions” and bipartisan friendships.
“What is clear to anyone who wants to hear is that the vast majority of Americans believe in unity,” Manchin wrote to USA Today. “By embracing compromise, common sense and common ground, we are stronger as a nation.”
Manchin wrote a letter last week explaining some of his reasons for attending an event hosted by No Labels, a centrist political group that has been a voice for so-called radical centrists since 2010 and has lashed out at partisanship and extremism. At the group’s founding event in December that year, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared that “both parties are following the mood of the moment.” “They fan the anger for their partisan interests instead of dealing with it.”
No Labels still exists, and its diagnosis of American politics is still based on the idea that parties are too partisan and are captured by the most extreme members of coalitions. “These extremist factions fuel political division and dysfunction every day,” Manchin wrote at the Norabels City Hall in New Hampshire, amid speculation that he might run for president under his banner from a third party. “They attack our institutions without regard for lasting damage, whether it’s our Capitol, our elected leaders, or our judicial system.”
There is something very strange, if not completely strange, about the narrative that places the January 6th Capitol attack in the same category of political action as the Black Lives Matter protests, the Supreme Court’s liberal critiques, or what Mr. Manchin has in mind. Even more bizarre is Manchin’s apparent sincerity to the call for further dialogue, when he says, “I believe there is a better way to govern and move this country forward, which involves respectful discourse, discussion and debate.”
We will spend the rest of our time here on how Mr. Manchin’s call to debate excludes tens of millions of Americans whose passionate, informed, but unpopular views offend centrist politicians. Alternatively, one could focus on the fact that much of No Labels’ actual advocacy appears to be little more than a stunt on the unpopular agenda of benefit cuts and fiscal cuts.
But for now, I would like to emphasize the fact that without partisanship there is no way to realize this long-standing political fantasy. Organized conflict is an inevitable part of democratically constructed political life for the simple reason that politics is about governing and governance is about choice.
Every choice has supporters and critics, supporters and opponents. Political participants will quickly develop different ideas about what is what. should be, and they come together and work together to make their vision a reality. Eventually, anyone’s precise planning will create political parties and partisanship. This is essentially what happened to the United States. Although the United States was founded against “factions,” in less than a decade it has developed a coherent system of organized political rivalry.
This does not mean that our political system is perfect. Far from it. But if there is a solution, it will require efforts to exploit and structure our partisanship and polarization through resilient institutions, rather than pretending to hide it in favor of manufactured xenophobic unities.
This article was originally published in The New York Times.