Skip to main content

Washington (George) got it right

By Robert Alexander, Special to CNN
updated 2:55 PM EDT, Wed October 16, 2013
Here's a look at the 44 presidents of the United States. George Washington, the first president (1789-1797) Here's a look at the 44 presidents of the United States. George Washington, the first president (1789-1797)
HIDE CAPTION
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
27.William Howard Taft .president
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
Presidents of the United States
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Robert Alexander: Shenanigans in Congress show wisdom of George Washington
  • Washington argued that political parties would seek to perpetuate themselves at all costs
  • Tea party may share concern about debt, but its position endangers U.S. credit, he says
  • Alexander: Most Americans are in the middle, not sympathetic to ideologues of the two parties

Editor's note: Robert Alexander is a professor of political science at Ohio Northern University. His most recent book is "Presidential Electors and the Electoral College."

(CNN) -- The first President of the United States got it right. In his farewell address, George Washington warned of the "continual mischiefs of the spirit of party" making it the "interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it." In other words, he cautioned against the dangers of political parties.

Washington was keenly aware of the destructive nature of political parties and was concerned they would "enfeeble public administration." With myriad affected agencies and thousands of furloughed federal workers, this is exactly where the country finds itself today.

Washington is not typically held in the same intellectual esteem that some of his counterparts are -- Madison, Hamilton and Jefferson come to mind. However, Washington's farewell address is among the most prescient documents ever penned by a President. In it, he cautioned against the vengeful practices of political parties. To him, parties put their own interests above those of the country.

Robert Alexander
Robert Alexander

He warned: "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." Both parties today would likely level such charges against one another, while most Americans recognize that both parties share responsibility for the current situation.

In addition to his concerns about political party mischief, he also warned of the dangers of accumulating debt. He argued that for a country to enjoy safety and strength, it should "cherish public credit." Running up debt would be tantamount to unethical behavior to future generations.

Tea party Republicans have succeeded in heeding Washington's concern by bringing the eyes of the country squarely upon the issue of debt. However, the recalcitrance of the tea party Republicans to compromise has also put the country at great risk, at least in Washington's eyes, given his dedication to maintaining America's credit.

Buffett: Debt ceiling a 'political WMD'

Washington was not a fan of taxation, but he abhorred debt even more. He wrote: "It is essential that you should practically bear in mind that towards the payment of debts there must be revenue; that to have revenue there must be taxes; that no taxes can be devised which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant."

Washington encouraged future generations to change policies they did not like by constitutional amendment or through the electoral process, rather than positioning their party to enjoy short-term benefits.

The first President's dislike for political parties still fits with the reality in which most Americans live today.

Political scientist Morris Fiorina has argued that the divisions between Americans have been far overblown. He contends that the so-called culture wars are a myth. While the neat and tidy categories of red and blue states make for interesting media narratives, they fail to depict accurately the ideological beliefs of the citizenry.

Fiorina points out that most Americans are not hard-core ideologues. On the whole, Americans are far more agreeable on most issues than the media depict. We love a good fight and as conflict tends to attract audiences, the media are quick to point to areas where conflict exists. Yet agreement among citizens is the norm, rather than the exception.

The effect of the polarized nation narrative is disillusionment for many Americans and undue influence for the more ideological in our midst.

Some context is helpful. While more than $2.6 billion was spent in the 2012 presidential campaign, 40% of Americans still chose to sit the election out. Those who do participate typically are among the most ideological in the electorate. This tends to produce candidates who are in turn more ideologically oriented.

When more ideological candidates are chosen in primaries, it leads to more ideological choices for voters. These choices likely do not reflect the preferences of the average citizen but instead more likely reflect the preferences among a party's more ideological members.

This cycle becomes increasingly embedded when congressional districts are drawn to support such a system. The end result is what we see happening in Washington today -- gridlock based upon both partisan and ideological whims.

A common criticism is that both parties are putting their own interests above the interests of the United States. Once again, Washington offers good advice to our current policymakers. "The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles."

For the sake of the country and the world economy, let us hope that our representatives begin to see themselves as Americans, rather than Democrats and Republicans. Thank you Mr. President.

Follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Robert Alexander.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 12:50 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 4:41 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT