Washington and the “Spirit of Party”

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.

14 thoughts on “Washington and the “Spirit of Party”

  1. Jim, you make the Tea Party sound so non-partisan. Can I ask this: Have they supported a single Democrat?

    And isn’t it the case that their support has gone towards supporting very conservative Republicans against moderate and less conservative Republicans?

    So how, exactly, is an organization that is primarily involved in moving the Republican party more to the extreme right a non-partisan movement? Sure, they like to rail against the establishement, but in the end they strike me as a hyper-partisan movement.

    I don’t have any problem with their goals. I’d love to see the country move towards the right. I’d love to see the Tea Party agenda enacted (with a few caveats).

    But losing elections to leftists isn’t the way to accomplish their goals. And the attempt to “purify” the party by only allowing hard-right candidates to make it through primaries is just going to lose more elections. The mass of people are in the middle, and the people on the left know how to exploit that fact.

    [I have to add, in stark contrast to your view, that I’m repelled by arguments that people should consider any factor other than party when voting in the general election.]


  2. James, what exactly is ‘what you’ve been saying’? Would you mind clarifying?

    Sven, I’m not aware of the Tea Partiers supporting any Democrats. Still, I think the fact that they support only some, but certainly not all, Republicans indicates that they are motivated more by a series of principles than party allegiance. They’ve found some Republicans to support their principles, but not yet any Democrats.

    I understand your point about how taking a hard line can lead to losses in the general elections. You may be right about that this time around as well. I still question, however, the idea that those Republicans who’ve been unseated would have been remarkably better than the Democrats who might now beat them. Republicans and Democrats have, unfortunately, been complicit in most of the bad legislation under which we currently suffer. ObamaCare is an exception to that, but do you really believe that health care “reforms” from a Republican Congress would have been dramatically better?

    That leads me to think that one should vote not for the establishment candidate because at least he’s not in their party (since that’s largely what’s gotten us where we are today), but, rather, for the person who most closely approximates one’s own true views—and let the chips fall where they may. I think that’s what a lot of Tea Partiers are thinking as well.

    1. One point that I will grant you is that the 2010 election will have a disciplining effect on the Republican party, in the sense that incumbants will fear primary challenges in a way they never have in the past.

      The more primaries matter, the more polarized Congress will become, as each party moves away from the middle. That means even fewer agreements across the aisle (and a lot more whining by the media and political scientists).

      But for me, Congress basically shutting down is not such a bad outcome!

    2. James Otteson,

      I see I am 7 years late to this post, but none the less I am moved by it. I just recently started studying history and came across your post about Washington’s view on the “spirit of the party”. I agree with you compeltely on this topic and now in the year 2017 I have seen this party conflict happen. I cant help but feel late to the fight, but I still ask myself what can we do today to make a difference. I hope you get this reply 7 years late and we are able to share a conversation about this.


  3. Karl Rove has shown us in his speak that he is loosing his mind over Christine’s success. It put the fear of God in him. His mission has passed. He’s no longer relevant – there will be less demand for his old wisdom. The Americans have moved on without his guidance.

    Donate to christine2010.com

  4. I agree that Washington’s words on partisanship ring painfully true in these times.

    I wonder if we are now in the midst of a party transition — less dramatic than those involving the Federalists or the Whigs — in which the Republican party must redefine itself, or at least revise the prioritization of its platform issues, to conform to the will of the voters. Perhaps it is too early to tell, and perhaps this movement will prove to be transitory..but interesting nonetheless.

    On a separate note, I also have come to question more often the degree to which the public at large couples the executive and legislative branches of government. While partisan politics certainly connects them, I think people forget that oftentimes the executive branch and the control of the legislative branch are not of the same party. “Obamacare” or “what the Republicans did for 8 years” or “the Bush tax cuts” or “Clinton’s dot com boom” or “Reaganomics” mix the the responsibilities of the executive with the actions and power of the legislature. When executive and legislature are in the same party, the link may be more valid…sometimes the executive “steers” the legislature, but sometimes not. I suppose this trend is indicative of the human tendency towards personification — or perhaps towards oversimplification. In any event I would like to see more recognition of the responsibility of the party leadership in the Senate and the House rather than piling on all credit or blame upon the President for the consequences of federal legislation.


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