What George Washington Really Meant About Political Parties — and Why It Matters

By Michael A. Smith of Emporia State University

Politicians Having a Beer

Did George Washington really hate political parties? For our first president’s 286th birthday, it is time for historians to set the record straight. For political scientists, a nuanced view of Washington’s stand helps us understand the modern-day Americans who also despise partisanship (or say they do).

Critics of the party system often rely on Washington’s comments to buttress their views. For example:  according to the Washington Post, Neil Simon, independent candidate for U.S. Senate from Maryland, actually pointed to a picture of Washington before paraphrasing him on the evils of parties, adding, “There are no political parties in the Constitution.”

On the surface, the case seems clear. In his 1796 farewell address, Washington talked at length about the “danger of parties in the state.” A sample quote follows:

There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true… [but] there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame…

 

There is plenty more, and readers are invited to click the hyperlink above to read the entire speech. Case closed, then?

Not so fast. First of all, Washington seems say we should reign in partisanship, not eliminate parties altogether. Furthermore, context matters, and the story—and the presidential term—that preceded Washington’s anti-party comments casts them in a remarkably different light.

From the Continental Army days onward, Washington worked closely with Alexander Hamilton, who would become a founding figure of the Federalist Party. Though Washington and Hamilton had their disagreements, Washington ultimately supported most of Hamilton’s agenda, including a strong Treasury Department, promotion of commerce, and neutrality between England and France. Thomas Jefferson, later a founder of the Democratic-Republican Party, was also in Washington’s nonpartisan cabinet, serving as Secretary of State. However, Jefferson quit in frustration as he saw the President increasingly siding with Hamilton. Later, divisions deepened over the controversial Jay Treaty, in which the U.S. sought to re-establish commercial relations with England, even making certain concessions, while staying neutral in England’s war with France. Jefferson favored an alliance with France. All of this and more is detailed in Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, the recent biography that inspired the hit Broadway musical Hamilton. Not only that, but according to historians Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, the hyper-partisan Hamilton actually helped draft Washington’s famous farewell. Spirit of party, indeed!

So, why the anti-party remarks? With Hamilton at his side, Washington denounced parties and “factions” because he saw Jefferson and Madison’s emerging, breakaway Democratic-Republican Party as a threat to national unity—especially, national unity behind the Federalist agenda. In other words, Washington and Hamilton denounced parties because if everybody would just agree with them, then there would be no need for parties. This is exactly why most Americans hate political parties today. In their 2003 book Stealth Democracy, John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse present the results of many focus groups conducted with nonparticipating and reluctant voters. Sure enough, most of the citizens they queried hated not only political parties, but politics itself. Yet without parties, how did these grumpy would-be voters propose to manage political conflict? Aye, there’s the rub! Hibbing and Theiss-Morse’s disengaged respondents did not propose a mechanism for managing political conflict, because they did not think there should be political conflict. If the country was simply ruled by consensus, then there would be no need for parties.

Washington, Hamilton, and the surly voters (and non-voters) studied in Stealth Democracy were skeptical of the whole idea that voters would—and should—have differing views. Instead of supporting parties as a means of managing competing ideas and interests in a pluralistic democracy, these critics proposed that all voters should simply agree with them, thus averting the need for any organized way of managing conflict. No conflict, no need to manage it: now everyone line up behind me!

This also explains another dilemma of today’s party critics. As John Sides points out, these “independent” voters overwhelmingly behave as partisans. In fact, the country is more politically polarized than it has been in a long time, with many of us even stating we would not want our children to marry someone who affiliates with the other party—and so-called “independents” are very much a part of this trend. Nor are self-identified independents necessarily more moderate: in 2016, supporters of liberal Bernie Sanders were more likely to call themselves independent. Hillary Clinton, who took more centrist positions, won most of the primary voters who self-identified as Democrats.

Today’s partisan-voting haters of political parties are not so different from their hero, Washington. Like the man from Mt. Vernon, today’s “independents” seek, not new ways of managing the tumult of political conflict, but the elimination of political conflict they imagine would occur if everyone just took the same stand on the issues—their stand. Then and now, the denunciation of parties is really an attack on people that have the audacity to have different opinions: those troublemaking factions who have the nerve to disagree with me!

As for me—like many political scientists, I like the parties. In the diverse tumult we become, we are bound to have passionate disagreements on the issues of the day. We do not all have the same values, but we can all value a system that allows us to fight, haggle, electioneer, and logroll our way toward some type of compromise instead of withdrawing or resorting to violence. The process can be messy, and parties allow for these differing opinions to coalesce into organized blocs and compete for votes. If I were king for a day, I would nudge the U.S. toward proportional representation, opening up the possibility of more than two competitive parties.  However, I harbor a deep distrust toward those that would dispense with parties altogether. As for the others, instead of denouncing the evils of “party” and “faction,” it might just be easier—and more honest—to denounce the evils of “anyone who dares to disagree with me.” It was true in 1796, and it is true today. No, thanks: I’ll stick with the parties.

Then again, perhaps Washington did have the answer. In the quote above, he suggested, not that we quench political parties, but rather that we prevent partisanship from becoming an open flame. Today, in our hyper-partisan climate, too many of us may join the cynical voters studied in Stealth Democracy, seeking only to end conflict with a win for our side, and placing no value on the system itself. We want only for our party to win, we do not nurture and celebrate the values that allow us to have political parties—all political parties, not just the one we support—to organize and negotiate our differences in the first place: country first, party second, and both are important. Hibbing and Theiss-Morse suggest that we begin by teaching children and adults alike to manage conflict productively, instead of offering only feel-good civics lessons and me-too groups of likeminded people that avoid any discussion of dissenting views. Indeed!

We owe our first president a deeper reading of his famous remarks and their context, and we owe our nation’s political parties their due. Happy Birthday, George!

About the author: Michael A. Smith is a Professor of Political Science at Emporia State University where he teaches classes on state and local politics, campaigns and elections, political philosophy, legislative politics, and nonprofit management. Read more on the MPSA blog from Smith and follow him on Twitter.

When the elite abandon democracy – A Warning from Belize?

By Harold Young of Austin Peay State University

“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

As always, my first full day in Belize starts in my barber’s chair. The “trim” (haircut) is accompanied by spirited conversations with other barbers and clients. The topics run the gamut. Sports, weather, sex and, of course, domestic/international politics merge and intertwine at various junctures highlighted with grand gestures, fist bumping and laughter. In the middle of a particularly animated discussion about the latest corruption revelation, a young man walks in and starts grooming his beard in the mirror. Half under his breath he says, “Barrow di teef franh di poa” (Prime Minister Barrow is stealing from the poor).

This statement reflects the perception that he, a poor individual, is being acted upon or taken advantage of by the elite represented by the Prime Minister. The term “elite” is grounded in a long history of study in political science. It springs from the Greek notion of the “guardian” class of rulers or the best among us to govern. This minority forms the leadership in a society and is studied in political science as elite theory. Elite theory, therefore, can be defined as the perspective that a small minority of people are arguably best suited to handle public affairs and that this arrangement is inevitable in modern societies (Maloy). Lasswell and Lerner point out that understanding the role of the elite is indispensable to understanding politics and the processes by which we are governed. We should also note that the term “elite” includes those with political, economic/business, educational, law enforcement, faith/religious, national defense and bureaucratic power and/or influence.

The elite, therefore, should serve the source of its power and authority while working against democracy because it has faith in the rule of the few. It rejects the idea of rule by the people in general (Johari, p.104). Therefore, Maurice Duverger suggests that “government of the people and by the people must be replaced by another formula, a government of people by an elite sprung from the people” (p. 425).

At the expense of being an alarmist (or offending), I suggest that Belize is teetering on the precipice of being a failed state.

The Fund for Peace developed the Fragile States Index which includes twelve distinct conflict risk indicators. Based on these indicators, Belize rates 115th out 177 countries. Worsening from 2007 to 2017, we are one stage below “Warning” (but not in “Stable” category) and one step in front of Guatemala, which is in the Warning stage. Further, the Belizean elites are more factionalized according to Index declined from 5/10 in 2007 to 4.3/10 in 2017.

Source: The Fund for Peace

Further, the Global Policy Forum  defines a failed state as follows:

Failed states can no longer perform basic functions such as education, security, or governance, usually due to fractious violence or extreme poverty. Within this power vacuum, people fall victim to competing factions and crime, and sometimes the United Nations or neighboring states intervene to prevent a humanitarian disaster. However, states fail not only because of internal factors. Foreign governments can also knowingly destabilize a state by fueling ethnic warfare or supporting rebel forces, causing it to collapse.

With all this in mind, Belize is not a failed state (yet) but the elements are present. Arguably, nothing is inevitable, but I suggest the current course is unsustainable without change, or the likely outcome will be at best be a contained intrastate conflict or, at the worst, adsorption by Guatemala (or the former followed by the latter).

That these scenarios are raised in disparate social groups is serious enough for concern. In Belize, the elite blames the poor for being poor. They view the poor as lazy and unambitious disregarding the inequities in society and institutional indifference and neglect that frames the lives of many of poor and mostly working strata of society. While I did see some people idle, most were working or hustling in some fashion. Second, on more than one occasion the use of government-sanctioned extrajudicial executions (a la the Philippines) is a viable crime-fighting alternative to keep them safe found support in elite discussions. They assume that they will be exempt from such a measure. Third, those in Belize’s upper echelons are overtly suspicious of any foreigners who are not Caucasian, or wealthy. Fourth, the wisdom of universal adult suffrage was questioned. The basis is that much of the voting public is stupid and/or corrupt. Fifth, it is widely believed the government needs to be more authoritative with a strong leader enforcing law and order at the expense of civil rights and freedoms. This is reminiscent of the “big man syndrome” which where one person or group exercises absolute control over others and ultimately leads to instability, further neopatrimonial corruption and increased disparities (Shawa 2012). Sixth, people do not feel safe unless walled in at home. The rise of private security is an indictment of public law and order institutions. The irony (if you want to call it that) is that those employed to secure are guarding the very ones who care little about their interests. Seventh, general disgust with politicians (part of the political elite) and blaming the very people who secure the interest of a portion of the elite. Eight, I was shocked at the resignation to the notion that independent Belize has failed. This seems to open the door to accepting dismemberment of the country within the realm of possibility (even acceptability).

The big question: how do all citizens (the voting public) ensure that the public’s interests are not ignored, and democracy is not undermined? There is no silver bullet. I humbly suggest that a part of the answer rests with the elite. What is expected of the elite, therefore, is that men and women who see beyond self-interest step forward in their respective spheres of interest and influence (not everyone can run for office) to champion the general welfare. Countries like Belize (and the U.S.) have no dearth of politicians but a shortage of statespersons, which means campaigning never transitions to governing after an election cycle. Policy development with consistent and equitable implementation must focus on the most good for the most people. None of this is to say that individuals or some civic groups do not do good works, but Belize is at the point where it must be more widespread, coordinated and focused to address the systemic problems of accountability, corruption, and disparities that drive societal problems. Though easier said than done of course, let us start with a public discourse of the real underlying issues and our failures to hold the political elite accountable. Does this account sound familiar?

P.S. At my last visit to the barber three weeks later, I was told that the young man was seriously injured in a shooting a few days earlier.

About the Author: Harold Young is an Assistant Professor at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. His research focuses Public Law and examines an American and international perspective on judicial institutional changes and decision-making. Previously, he works as a health communications manager, a social worker and practiced law.

MPSA in 2017 – Accomplishments Worth Celebrating (video)

 

This year was confusing at times and exhausting at others, but it also had its high points. As we say goodbye to 2017, we welcome you to join us for the MPSA highlight reel. Our thanks to everyone who played a part in making these projects a reality, including our program chairs, council members, committee chairs, program partners, donors, volunteers, and members. May the new year welcome only the best to you both personally and professionally! – MPSA Staff

The Top 5 MPSA Roundtable Audio Recordings (podcasts) from 2017

MPSA-Top5Podcasts

Each year at its annual conference, MPSA records dozens of professional development panels focusing on topics most relevant to researchers and to those who teach. Audio from the roundtable discussions is available to MPSA Members online by visiting the Highlighted Presentations Section of the website and selections are also available to the public as part of MPSA’s outreach to the discipline. As 2017 comes to a close, its time to take a look back at the five most popular of these audio recordings.

  • MPSA Roundtable on Career: What to Do/Not Do at a Job Talk
    (Read the Recap) – Listen in as Elizabeth A. Bennion of Indiana University-South Bend chairs the MPSA Career Roundtable on “What to Do and What Not to Do at a Job Talk” with Mary Hallock Morris of University of Southern Indiana and David C. Wilson of University of Delaware. During the discussion, the members of the panel share their observations on how to know if the university is a good fit for you (personally and professionally) and what can make you stand out as a successful candidate.  
  • MPSA Roundtable: Applying to Graduate School
    (Read the Recap) – Mackenzie H. Eason of the University of California – Los Angeles chairs this MPSA roundtable session on “Applying to Graduate School” with Coty J. Martin, West Virginia University, Joan Ricart-Huguet, Princeton University, and Jovan Milojevich, University of California-Irvine. Members of the panel discuss questions and issues related to applying to graduate programs, such as when and where to apply, and how to make yourself a more appealing and ultimately successful candidate for admission.
  • MPSA Roundtable: Teaching LGBTQ Politics
    (Read the Recap) – Susan Burgess, Ohio University-Main Campus, chairs this discussion among panelists and participants in the audience on Teaching LGBTQ Politics. Panelists include Christine Keating of Ohio State University-Main Campus, Megan Elizabeth Osterbur of Xavier University of Louisiana, Marla Brettschneider of University of New Hampshire-Main Campus, and Courtenay Daum of Colorado State University-Fort Collins. Session topics included selecting topics, readings, and pedagogical strategies pertaining to teaching LGBTQ politics classes.
  • MPSA Roundtable On Congressional Leadership Through The Eyes Of Randy Strahan And Barbara Sinclair
    (Read the Recap) – Sean M. Theriault of the University of Texas at Austin, chairs this MPSA roundtable session on “Congressional Leadership through the Eyes of Randy Strahan and Barbara Sinclair” with Gregory Koger, University of Miami, Daniel John Palazzolo, University of Richmond, Kathryn Pearson, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, David W. Rohde, Duke University and Matthew N. Green, Catholic University of America. Members of the panel remember the contributions of Randy Strahan and Barbara Sinclair to the field of political science through the sharing of memories and personal reflections and take an early look at congressional leadership in the 115th Congress.
  • MPSA Roundtable: Teaching Research Methods to Undergraduates
    (Recap Not Available) – Nathan D. Griffith of Belmont University chairs the MPSA roundtable session on “Teaching Research Methods to Undergraduates” with Binneh S. Minteh of Rutgers University-Newark, and Emily Clough of Newcastle University.

Many thanks to our panelists at the 2017 conference and congratulations to those with topics that have been shown to be among the most popular with listeners after the conference. You may share your expertise by participating as a panelist in one of MPSA’s Professional Development Roundtables at the 2018 conference in Chicago. MPSA seeks to organize a series of roundtable sessions on topics including public engagement, career development, publishing, teaching, and research methods. Learn more about the opportunity and volunteer your expertise as a panelist.

Recap of Tuesday’s #PSBeWell End-of-Semester/Holiday Edition

PSBeWell-EndOfSemester

This month’s MPSA Twitter Chat featured a conversation about creating a less stressful end-of-semester experience for those on both sides of the syllabus, ways to balance work and personal time during the busy holiday season, and a few resolutions for the upcoming semester. Many thanks to our co-hosts for the discussion: Todd Curry, Assistant Professor of Political Science at The University of Texas at El Paso, Jacqueline Sievert, Research Fellow with YWCA Niagara, and Adnan Rasool, Doctoral Candidate at Georgia State University.

Read the recap below or look for the extended conversation on Twitter using #PSBeWell. 

Please share your ideas for upcoming #MPSAchat sessions at https://mpsa.typeform.com/to/tuWRlM.

Save the Date for the Next #MPSAchat: January 28, 2018 (2pm Eastern)