In his farewell address to the nation in September 1796, outgoing President George Washington warned us about what he saw as one of the principal threats to democracy: The political party.

“However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they 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 said.

His argument was that political parties would pursue power over the will of the people. Partisan power would trump popular rule. It is now 228 years since that warning, and it looks like Washington was right. Considerable research has shown that people in this country are letting their opinions on issues and of others be shaped by partisan leanings.

When it comes to decision making, the partisan tail is wagging the popular dog.

Recent research by the Pew Foundation has shown us just how much influence partisan ideas have been shaping our world views. A March analysis published by Pew of its data showed that disdain for the other party’s policies were nearly as important to people in their party affiliation as their party’s own positions.

“About three-quarters of Republicans (76 percent) and 72 percent of Democrats say a major reason for belonging to their party is that its policies are good for the country, according to the survey of 4,656 U.S. adults conducted Jan. 29-Feb. 13. Republicans (71 percent) are more likely than Democrats (63 percent) to cite the harm from the opposing party’s policies as a major reason to affiliate with their party,” wrote Hannah Fingerhut, a research analyst at Pew.

The result is a partisan compass that changes direction based on the political ramifications of any issue. Recent scandalous revelations of Trump’s extramarital affairs with porn stars is one recent example. In a recent poll by Huffington Post, only 26 percent of Democrats (vs. 67 percent of Republicans) agreed that an elected official who had an affair could still be an effective lawmaker. Asked the same question by a CBS poll in 1998 following the Clinton-Lewinski affair, 77 percent of Democrats said it was a private matter and 64 percent of Republicans said it was a “public concern.”

On a wide array of pressing public concerns, from gun legislation reform to health care funding and from climate change planning to global trade, the solutions are buried beneath piles of partisan rubble. At the same time, public support and trust in both political parties has faded considerably.

An easy solution would seem to be to get rid of political parties, but the two-party system is so ingrained in everything we do as a democracy from legislation to how we hold elections, that it would take a remarkable effort. It would require an effort that would also depend on widespread bipartisanship, a situation that sadly seems to be completely unrealistic.

Yet something needs to change. We can no longer afford to run the country based on partisan disputes. The stakes are too high. We should have listened to Washington.

Pete Mazzaccaro

 

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