I am eagerly anticipating the November elections. Not because I am ready for the candidates and propositions I support to win, but because I am ready for the campaign season to be over.
Thanks to ubiquitous news coverage, “my cup runneth over” with debates and disagreements, advertisements and speeches, Facebook posts and more Facebook posts for and against candidates and causes.
As I anticipate the ever approaching “cease fire,” however fleeting it may be, I am led to reflect on the origins of this divisive season.
Although many believe that present-day politics are more partisan and negative than ever before, this turbulent and tumultuous time finds its origins in our nation’s earliest days and most prominent leaders.
America’s founding generation was as flawed and imperfect, as divided and conflicted as our generation.
At times the founders seemed to act with wisdom and prudence. Other times they seemed to be flying by the seats of their pants, learning through trial and error as they made decisions, the implications of which they could not fully anticipate.
The divisive, mudslinging presidential campaign we have inherited is one of their most negative, unanticipated legacies.
This heritage resulted from the primary dilemma facing the founding generation following independence – namely, that the independent states needed to cohere as a single entity while retaining their autonomy.
The states had been united in their efforts to win independence from what they conceived as an oppressive, exploitative national government. Thus, the end of war also meant the end of a basis of union.
In the years following independence, the founders constructed the U.S. Constitution that became both the new basis for union and, ironically, for disunion.
The Constitution united insofar as it avoided continuation of the tenuous union under the Articles of Confederation, as well as the possibility of the states following Europe in forming several regional confederations.
Yet, this document of union was also a document of disunion, or at least profound disagreement because the role of national government vis-Ã -vis the state governments was left ambiguous and open to interpretation, as one of James Madison’s letters to Thomas Jefferson makes clear.
This ambiguity was a primary factor in the emergence of a two-party system based on different interpretations of the indistinct relationship between the national government and the state governments set forth in the Constitution.
While serving as George Washington’s secretary of state, Jefferson (with Madison’s aid) engaged in a covert campaign against the administration, which they believed was abandoning the “revolutionary principles” by expanding the scope and reach of the national government.
Jefferson and Madison’s efforts to promote a government based on their understanding of the “revolutionary principles” led to the creation of a Republican party to oppose the Federalists, which ultimately resulted in the first negative presidential election campaign in 1800.
Incumbent President John Adams (Federalist) was pitted against incumbent Vice President Jefferson (Republican), resulting in what historians still describe as one of, if not the, most negative campaigns in presidential history.
Lest you think the mudslinging tactics went on hiatus until the modern era, one need only research the 1828, 1876 or 1896 campaigns to be convinced otherwise. As a 2012 CBS News article was headlined: “Nasty campaigns ads an American tradition.”
This brief history reveals that legacies and traditions are a mixed bag.
They can prove prescient, offering paradigms to be retained and refined, but they can also prove malevolent, offering models to be rejected and replaced.
In the case of America’s founding generation, we find both prescient and malevolent paradigms.
We must learn from the mistakes of those who have gone before us by choosing to disagree and debate in a manner that refuses shallow, uninformed rhetoric; that avoids ad hominem attacks; that does not intentionally skew or misrepresent the views of others; and that leaves behind the destructive legacy of portraying one’s opponent or opponents as a force that can and will wreak havoc on the nation.
The Constitution’s intentional ambiguity regarding the relationship between national government, state government and “the people” yields different interpretations and perspectives about what constitutes “constitutionality,” but it need not result in the negative, libelous and, at times, fanatical proclamations that have arisen far too often.
Partisan politics is a longstanding, unavoidable and perhaps even necessary tradition in American democracy.
As Madison stated, “In all political societies, different interests and parties arise out of the nature of things, and the great art of politicians lies in making them checks and balances to each other.”
Thus, political disagreement resulting in partisan politics is not a plague to be eradicated, but an essential aspect of the American experiment that can result in a more balanced union.
At its worst, it can divide and destroy the very union the founding generation sought to create, but this is neither necessary nor inevitable.
We can embrace the best and unifying aspect of this founding legacy by refusing to portray those with differing views as a pestilence that will destroy the nation.
We can choose to engage in a vigorous and vibrant debate about contrasting perspectives and policies that remains civil and courteous despite our disagreements.
In this way, informed debate with others of different parties and perspectives should be retained as an essential, balancing legacy (as Madison suggested), while fallacious, ad hominem attacks (as Madison, ironically, practiced at times) can be released as unessential and destabilizing.