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From Washington to Trump: How our constitutional democracy eroded into a partisan power game

Statue of George Washington
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Leach, a Republican from Iowa, served in the House of Representatives from 1977 to 2007.

American political history can be traced from the framing of democratic constitutionalism to the challenge of the "Big Lie" and the narcissistic insurrection that it precipitated. Contrasting the philosophy and character traits of the first president of the United States with the most recent occupant of the White House could not be more relevant.

Several weeks before George Washington traveled to New York to take the oath of office at Federal Hall, he asked if James Madison would visit Mount Vernon to review a draft inaugural speech written by an aide. Washington gave Madison the proposed speech and asked if he would comment. After retiring to another room and reviewing the text, Madison reported to Washington that it was "terrible."

"Why?" asked Washington, and Madison explained it had two significant faults: It was over an hour in length, which he was confident the audience of legislators would consider intolerable; and, most significantly, it failed to reflect the nature of the constitutional system that had just begun to unfold. It was too regal. Accordingly, Washington asked his fellow Virginian if he would consider presenting a different tact. Madison accepted and returned a few days later with a new draft.

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Despite old-fashioned, sometimes convoluted rhetoric, Washington's first inaugural address provides a revealing perspective to the partisan divisions that have metastasized in recent years.

The address begins with a paragraph only the first president could have written. Indeed, no president or governor has ever begun an inaugural address as Washington did. What he chose to acknowledge to the Congress assembled in Federal Hall was a litany of his own weaknesses: 1) that his capacities were limited by inferior endowments granted to him by nature; 2) that he was unpracticed in civil administration; and 3) that in his declining years he had been wracked by frequent ravages in his health. In other words, the general who defeated one of the most powerful armies in history suggested that he was inexperienced, lacking in intelligence and in poor health.

Aside from this extraordinarily modest assessment of his personal capacities, Washington thoughtfully proceeded to stress the need for the newly defined branches of government to work together. The presidency, he pointed out under the new Constitution, had the obligation to "propose" legislative initiatives while the power to legislate was the clear province of Congress. Given the prospect that legislative turmoil could arise, he laid down three "no's" on how public officials should avoid temptations: 1) there should be "no local prejudices" (i.e., the concerns of the national government should embody the public interest and supersede interest groups and local concerns); 2) there should be "no separate views" (i.e., states should not be allowed to secede); and 3) there should be "no party animosities" (i.e., members of Congress should respect each other).

Continuing to address motivation, Washington instead called on legislators to concentrate on following "the immutable demands of private morality." This singular advice may seem unrealistically esoteric. Actually, it may be the most profound advice ever given to an elected official. What Washington, who uniquely distrusted political parties, recommended was for legislators to place a singular emphasis on individual judgment driven by moral concerns rather than partisan conformity or self-serving ambition.

As in other democracies, legislatures find themselves changing with the times, sometimes gradually, once in a while abruptly.

When I entered Congress in January 1977, both parties on Capitol Hill held caucuses every three or four months where reflective discussions would take place about issues coming before Congress and about elections that might be around the corner. The leadership of both parties as well as the majority of Members generally worked constructively together — although whichever party held the majority had a tendency to be somewhat arrogant at the committee level. By the time I left Congress three decades later, Members of the two legislative bodies, particularly the House of Representatives, had become increasingly disrespectful of the other party and its membership. The Congress had, in effect, become "caucus-ized."

Party caucuses evolved into frequent closed-door meetings with attitudes more like a football team at halftime than an orchestra where musicians play assorted instruments in synch. Instead of statecraft, partisan objectives discussed in caucuses came principally to revolve around how the other side could be derailed rather than how legislation might be improved. Yet the oath of office a public official takes is not a party unity pledge. It is a commitment to uphold and defend the Constitution. Implicitly the oath legislators take requires members of Congress to honor separation of powers processes and the individual rights directives in the Bill of Rights that became more expansive as constitutional amendments were adopted.

As internal schisms grew, so did congressional dysfunction. With a breakdown in mutual trust, members increasingly considered their legislative work to be the principal province of political parties rather than the Congress as a whole. Overwhelming partisanship has the effect of denying a constructive role for a full complement of legislators, thus shielding millions of Americans from having their views considered in the legislative process.

Eight years after his delivery of the first inaugural address, Washington expanded on the concerns he initially laid out in New York by issuing his Farewell Address as he prepared to return to Mount Vernon. The Farewell Address, which included Madison's and later Alexander Hamilton's input, was never delivered as a speech. Rather the address was widely published as a letter in newspapers in 1796. Again, Washington advised fellow citizens to avoid excessive partisanship and recognize the importance of identifying more with the national interest than states or cities. Citizens, he warned, should be suspicious of individuals who advocate secession or suggest that the country was too big to be governed within its constitutional framework.

Whenever the national government over the years considered intervening militarily on other continents or at sea, historians and social critics traditionally found reason to emphasize Washington's legendary warning against long-term alliances and policies that might make the country vulnerable to foreign entanglements.

What is seldom noted are the deep concerns Washington also registered against domestic intrigues, some of which had foreign influences. Washington may have had in mind aspects of Shays' Rebellion in Massachusetts (1786-87) that occurred prior to his assuming the presidency and the Whiskey Rebellion (1791-94) shortly thereafter, but his concerns for insurrection appear to go deeper. Accordingly, in his Farewell Address he carefully alerted his fellow citizens about "cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled" leaders of political factions who seek to "subvert the power of the people" in order to "usurp for themselves the reins of government."

Our first president made clear for posterity that "the will of the nation" could not be replaced by "the will of a party," especially if it breached constitutional obligations. For Washington, political parties too often sharpened "the spirit of revenge," agitated communities with ill-founded jealousies, kindled animosities, and occasionally fomented riots and insurrections. On the other hand, Washington considered governance unity, established by the Constitution, to be a pillar in the edifice of independence and stability.

Amidst the vast challenges of the 20th century, Washington's concern for insurrection probably seemed like an irrelevant footnote. By contrast, in this new millennium his warnings resound with contemporary relevance. Indeed, no warning to the American public could apply more presciently to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection on Capitol Hill than that issued 22 decades earlier by George Washington.

Abroad, the insurrection has transformed the way friends and foes look at our governance model. Perhaps the most dangerous and lasting aspect of the insurrection relates to the way a cunning president may in the eyes of his followers legitimize violence with a narcissistic stamp of approval. One such event can lead to others and precipitate copycat insurrections in any state in the union. Our nation's capital could even be vulnerable to similar assaults. For 230 years, the Constitution has symbolized free people working together. Now that heralded tradition is being challenged from within.

From an early age Washington cogitated on the subject of morality. As a 16 year old, he copied a small treatise composed by French Jesuits in 1595 and translated it into English. The treatise contained 110 rules of civil behavior that he was required to study, perhaps as a penmanship as well as ethics assignment. The last civility rule read: "Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience."

Today the spirit of America is on trial. When emotive partisanship threatens the very core of our democracy the public must insist that the ship of state be righted. One approach is to press candidates for office to publicly acknowledge, perhaps even sign a civility pledge, noting that:

    1. The oath of office that elected officials are required to take is not a party unity pledge. It is a moral and legal commitment to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.
    2. Process is our most valued product. How politics is practiced is often more important than the nature of the policies that unfold.
    3. If elected, he/she will be a representative of the public at large, not simply those who may have voted for or supported him/her financially.
    4. If all men and women are created equal, it follows that all views deserve to be respectfully listened to and considered in the making of public policy.
    5. The national interest must always trump local or interest group concerns.
    6. The practice of religion must be protected as an individual right but religious tenets of singular faiths should never be legislated in such a way as to bind people who adhere to other faith systems or ethical tenets.
    7. The courts and legislatures should reconsider recent campaign finance rulings and recognize that corporatism is not democracy. Mega campaign contributions, foreign or domestic, have no legitimate role in American elections.
    8. Polarization is not the American way. Politicians should respect their opponents. They are rivals, not enemies.
    9. Civility matters. We are all connected and rely on each other.
    10. A hate-free nation must be a common goal.

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