Sean Wilentz: The Long and Tragical History of Post-Partisanship, from Washington to Obama

Roundup: Historians' Take

Sean Wilentz is a contributing editor at The New Republic, and the author of Bob Dylan in America (Doubleday). This article ran in the November 17, 2011, issue of the magazine.

The American dream of politics without conflict, and of politics without political parties, has a history as old as American politics. Anyone carried along on the political currents since 2008, however, might be forgiven for thinking that the dream is something new—and that a transformative era was finally at hand, in which the old politics of intense partisan conflict, based on misunderstanding, miscommunication, and misanthropy, could be curbed if not ended. After the presidency of George W. Bush, one of the most partisan administrations in our history, Barack Obama promised a new era of post-partisanship. He had arrived on the national stage, after all, with his speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 proclaiming that there was “not a liberal America and a conservative America—there’s the United States of America.” As president, Obama would not only reach across the aisle, listen to the Republicans, and credit their good ideas, but also demonstrate that the division between the parties was exaggerated if not false, as many Americans, younger voters above all, fervently believed. Divisive and hot-tempered partisanship would give way to healing and temperate leadership, not least by means of Obama’s eloquence, rational policies, and good faith.

Yet after his first year in office, the Gallup poll registered that Obama was the most polarizing president in his first year in its recorded history. After Obama’s second year, Gallup found that he was the most polarizing in his second year. The parties were more divided, and partisanship was more ferocious, than ever. And subsequent debates over extending the Bush tax cuts and raising the nation’s debt ceiling have affirmed and deepened the partisan divide as never before.

There are many reasons for this phenomenon, not least the radical transformation of the Republican Party over the last four decades. Clearly, though, the promise that parties and partisanship would soon be diminished, let alone overcome, has been revealed to be an illusion. That illusion was certainly nurtured by wishfulness, but it sprang also from ignorance about the roots of this strand of American political history: the politics of post-partisanship, a politics that flourished in different ways under different names at various points in the nineteenth century and dates back to the nation’s founding. The rage for a modern post-partisanship also ignored the historical reality that partisanship, although often manipulated and abused, has also been Americans’ most effective vehicle for democratic social and political reform.

HISTORIANS ARE well aware of the antagonism to political parties that ran deep in Anglo-American political culture through the era of the American Revolution. Yet the prevalence of anti-party ideas before 1800 did not mean that early America was an idyll of impartiality and selflessness. Factional intrigues and battles, fought with sophisticated electioneering techniques, appeared throughout the colonies, most famously in the battles between the Proprietary and Quaker parties during the 1740s and 1750s in Pennsylvania, in which Benjamin Franklin cut his political teeth. In America as in Britain, anti-party statements as often as not amounted to cant—efforts, as Richard Hofstadter described them, by “partisan writers and political leaders who [were] actually appealing to a general distrust of the idea of party” in order to assail their opponents. Such anti-party partisanship motivated Lord Bolingbroke, the great British advocate of anti-party politics in the 1730s. And it lay behind the most important anti-party statement by the most important anti-partisan spokesman of the early American republic.

President George Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796 would prove to be a locus classicus of American anti-party thought, but its historical context suggests a more political story. Soon after the new government established by the Federal Constitution gathered in New York in 1789, sharp divisions appeared in Congress, particularly over Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton’s fiscal proposals. In 1792, James Madison, the head of the congressional opposition, published several anonymous and highly partisan newspaper essays, including “A Candid State of Parties,” which cut through anti-party conceits. Two parties were “natural to most political societies,” Madison wrote, and two parties now existed in America: an anti-Republican Party aligned with the rich and influential that controlled national power; and his own Republican Party, which represented the great majority but was out of power due to the wealth and stratagems of its opponents. Madison could not tell which party would ultimately prevail, but he was reasonably confident that the conflict would not end anytime soon.

The ensuing four years, strained further by bitter debates over foreign policy, saw the rise and fall of the so-called Democratic Republican societies, followed by the formation of formal party machinery dedicated to electing former Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson to the presidency. Beginning in 1795, Washington started dropping hints that he would not accept re-election. He privately informed his anointed successor, Vice President John Adams, of his decision the following March; and by summer Jefferson’s supporters had geared up for a tough campaign. But Washington publicly stepped aside only in September, with his Farewell Address. So the great address, co-authored with Alexander Hamilton, and commonly viewed as an Olympian statement about uniting in the national cause, was in fact deeply political—“a signal,” Fisher Ames, the conservative Federalist leader from Massachusetts, called it, “like dropping a hat, for the party racers to start.” It was also the latest highly partisan appeal delivered as an attack on partisanship and on the low demagogues who fomented it.

Washington’s address never explicitly mentioned Jefferson or his supporters, but its unvarnished attack on organized political opposition was plainly directed against them. As if replying to Madison’s “Candid State of Parties,” Washington stated that parties were not “natural” but “artificial” and intolerable—“of fatal tendency,” and wholly illegitimate. Led by “artful and enterprising” men, and determined to impose despotism atop the ruins of liberty, parties would distract “the constituted authorities” from serenely producing “consistent and wholesome plans digested by common councils and modified by mutual interests.” All of which implied that support of the Jeffersonian opposition was tantamount to breaking the law.

In an organic, well-ordered society, Washington contended, there supposedly existed a natural harmony of interests which, after reasonable deliberation by the delegated authorities, produced at least an agreeable concord, if not a perfect unanimity, on political matters. “For the mass of our citizens,” Washington wrote to the Virginia Federalist John Marshall the year following his address, “require no more than to understand a question to decide it properly.” Outside of elections, ordinary citizens ought not to express themselves in any organized manner on the issues of the day, but should instead leave government to the wisdom of their elected governors. “After all,” George Cabot, the esteemed Massachusetts Federalist, observed in 1795, “where is the boasted advantage of a representation system ... if the resort to popular meetings is necessary?” The opposition party’s basic aim, supposedly, was to disrupt that tranquil order and create conflicts that would not otherwise occur—or, as the Farewell Address put it, “render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.” Out of those artificial conflicts, power-hungry demagogues would crush public liberty and assume dictatorial powers.

Jefferson lost by a whisker in 1796, but his narrow victory in 1800-1801 marked a stunning defeat for the organic, anti-partisan conception of politics. The anti-party animus did not suddenly evaporate, of course. Jefferson’s famous “postpartisan” declaration in his inaugural address—“We are all republicans, we are all federalists”—directly appealed to the old anti-party presumptions. Yet Jefferson’s appeal was also a ploy, which he had designed to win over the more moderate Federalists and conquer his opponents by dividing them. The Federalists were not deceived. Some had faith that the besotted electorate would come to its senses after the certain chaos of Jeffersonian rule and restore disinterested patriots such as themselves to power. Other Federalists, though, abandoned the idea that organized politics should cease between elections. “We must consider whether it be possible for us to succeed,” Alexander Hamilton observed in 1802, “without, in some degree, employing the weapons which have been employed against us.”...

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