Guest columnist Gary Bernhard: The spirit of party 


Published: 01-04-2023 11:32 AM

We live in an age of profound political division. The two major parties are so far apart that they spend most of their time excoriating each other instead of working through their differences to develop legislation that benefits all the people, the country, and the environment. It’s an old problem.

George Washington warned against what he called “the spirit of party” in his farewell address:

“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.

“Political parties 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.”

It’s scary how prescient the first president was. He clearly foresaw the future, which is, unfortunately, our present. The “strongest passions of the human mind” — fear, hate, and greed — often dominate political discourse today. The attack on the Capitol in 2021 was certainly a horrid enormity. The “spirit of revenge” underlies much legislative activity.

Surely we have seen that “the disorders and miseries which result” from party conflict have inclined the minds of many people “to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual.” And let’s not forget the attempts to put “the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community,” “in the place of the delegated will of the nation.”

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It's scary how prescient Washington was. What’s even more frightening is that the “spirit of party” took over as soon as he retired.

Newspaper articles about Hamilton and Jefferson were often full of lies and misinformation and were as nasty and rancorous as partisan tweets are today. Perhaps if the Federalists and the Democrats had heeded Washington’s warning in 1796, Republicans and Democrats today would find it easier to seek common ground rather than power and revenge. And just maybe, in addition to a Bill of Rights, we would have developed a Bill of Responsibilities to guide social and political behavior.

Gary Bernhard lives in Shutesbury.]]>