The Wilson Quarterly

Remember the last time Americans elected a "postpartisan" president? Why, it was only four years ago! It was Barack Obama who hoped to soar above the sordid political wars with “eloquence, rational policies, and good faith,” writes Princeton historian Sean Wilentz. After Obama’s first year in office, however, Gallup found that he was the most polarizing president in the history of its polling efforts.

The American yearning for a politics without partisan conflict is as old as the republic, Wilentz says. It’s also a snare and a delusion. President George Washington gave voice to it in his Farewell Address of 1796, famously warning that political parties were not “natural,” and that they were led by “artful and enterprising men” (which he did not intend as a compliment). Yet Washington’s deeds belied his words—the very timing of his speech was highly partisan. Having long before decided not to accept a third term, Washington informed his vice president and chosen successor, the Federalist John Adams, but delayed a public announcement until he delivered the Farewell Address in September of that election year, handicapping Adams’s rival, Thomas Jefferson.

When Jefferson finally won the presidency four years later, he famously declared, “We are all republicans, we are all federalists,” but his words, too, were deceptive. Jefferson and his allies in what eventually became the Democratic Party were avowedly partisan, and the Jacksonian Democrats of the next generation went on to build a “disciplined, even quasi-military” party organization, Wilentz notes.

The antiparty spirit has surged forth on many occasions in American history—among the abolitionists, for example, and in the Civil War Confederacy, with its single-term six-year presidency, a classic political design for minimizing partisan conflict. After the Civil War, upper-class northern liberal reformers in the Republican Party (Mugwumps and others) rose up in fury at what they saw as the nation’s debased politics of corruption and spoilsmanship, championing causes such as depoliticization of the civil service and restrictions on immigration. One of their standard-bearers, Henry Adams, declared that the reformers were independent of the corrupt major parties, forming a “party of the center.”

When the nation’s attention turned in the late 19th century to the disruptions caused by the Industrial Revolution, the burgeoning Progressive movement united behind the antipartisan banner. As the Confederates had done, the Progressives often looked to institutional design to cleanse politics. Primary elections, ballot initiatives, and the direct election of U.S. senators were among the devices Progressives used to weaken political parties. Whenever possible, they favored putting decision-making powers in the hands of disinterested “experts.” Ironically, though, the two presidents who most effectively advanced the Progressive agenda, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, were astute party politicians.

The latest postpartisan upsurge began with Jimmy Carter—a morally upright engineer who promised to end politics as usual when he was elected in 1976—and a trio of third-party candidates who ran for the presidency beginning in 1980: John Anderson, Ross Perot, and Ralph Nader.

The problem with postpartisanship, Wilentz warns, is that leaders need “the trust and continuing cooperation born of strong party loyalties” to get things done in Congress. “Whenever political leaders have presumed that their expertise and their background make them special repositories of wisdom” above the fray, “the result has been a fatal disconnection between themselves and the citizenry.”

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The Source: "The Mirage" by Sean Wilentz, in The New Republic, November 17, 2011. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr/DonkeyHotey

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