We have had some discussion on the curious case of Christine O’Donnell (here), and on the apparently dwindling advantage Republicans are enjoying over Democrats as we transition from primaries to the general election (here).
For the record, I am not a member of any political party. I am, moreover, repelled by arguments that people should vote for a party’s candidate because . . . he is the party’s candidate. I have no interest serving any party simply for the sake of serving the party. I want the right principles advanced, whoever, and from what party soever, the person should come who supports those principles.
I think George Washington was right when he said, in his 1796 Farewell Address, that political parties “are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.” He went on to argue:
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.
What Washington called “the spirit of party” was, he argued, “inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind”—namely, the tribal passion to separate the world into “we” vs. “they,” into rival and competing groups. This spirit can then easily become a desire to see “our side” win, regardless of whether our side is better than “their side” and regardless of the issues at stake or the facts of the matter.
I think this spirit of party is behind the attacks on O’Donnell from Republicans. Karl Rove is on a one-man wrecking-ball mission, it seems, to destroy her candidacy (here are more videos than you’ll be able to stomach of him attacking her), and Charles Krauthammer has joined the fray. Rove beats the drum on her dabbling in witchcraft and on “financial questions” in her past, but I think that is blowing smoke. What really angers him is that he thinks she won’t win; if she doesn’t, it would leave one more seat in the Democrats’ hands. Krauthammer has the same objection: What O’Donnell’s supporters are missing is “the point that what’s at stake here is control of the Senate.”
Right. We want our guys to be in control, not the other team’s guys. Perhaps Rove or Krauthammer would like to explain what exactly their party did during the eight years of its occupancy in the White House that should endear itself to citizens concerned about our most pressing issues now? I think there are two huge, looming, and ominous issues facing the country over the next several years, issues that dwarf all the others: (1) our spiraling-out-of-control fiscal situation, at the federal, state, and local levels; and (2) growing geopolitical instability and aggression.
Perhaps Republicans, or some of them at any rate, have awakened to the first issue, but, with a few exceptions, establishment Republicans’ recent conversion to the religion of fiscal conservatism does not inspire confidence. Democrats, for their part, seem willing to pretend the first issue doesn’t exist. And neither party is offering a coherent and plausible plan to deal with the second issue.
One reason the Tea Party has been able to exercise such astonishing influence is precisely that it is not beholden to any party. They want fiscal conservatives who will commit to the principle of constitutionally limited government. As they have now shown, they are perfectly happy to campaign against Republicans who are unwilling to discipline themselves according to that principle.
In this I think the members of the Tea Party are heeding Washington’s counsel. Washington predicted that parties could come to see their own survival and interests as being more important than the interests of the constituents or country they served. When that happens, Washington, argued, tyranny will result. Whatever else is true of the unorganized, decentralized, raucous, and motley Tea Party supporters, they seem to understand the dangers of the spirit of party, and they are moving to oppose it.
For that, I think they should be applauded, not vilified.