Had a Democratic president refused to concede an election based on conspiracy theories, summoned supporters to the Capitol for a “wild” rally, pressured the vice president to disregard the Electoral College, urged a large crowd to “fight” against a “stolen” election, and then delayed efforts to suppress a riotous and deadly mob besieging Congress, there is little doubt Republican senators would vote to convict on an article of impeachment for incitement to insurrection.
By the same measure, had some of Mr. Trump’s supporters subverted nationwide protests to loot stores, burn buildings, tear down statues, intimidate pedestrians and occupy urban areas as “autonomous zones,” it is impossible to imagine Democratic politicians remaining silent, dismissing the destruction as merely “property” damage or justifying the riotous behavior as protected by the First Amendment.
George Washington could not have foreseen the political debates in our day, but he was familiar with the dangers of partisan politics in every age. Such partisanship, he warned, in a description fit for our time, “agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, (and) foments occasionally riot and insurrection.”
As we seek to calm the escalating “riot and insurrection” in American society, we should resist the temptation to point partisan fingers at one another and instead ask inwardly, “Is it I?”
Partisanship magnifies the vices of opponents while minimizing their virtues. Even more destructive, it hides the vices of friends and even reinvents them as virtues. Thus, it hardens the heart against enemies while turning a blind eye for allies. Partisanship, in short, is hypocrisy. It is easily seen in others but beguiles us never to find it in ourselves.
Partisanship suppresses and distorts truth, thereby fueling doubt, distrust and deceit. It tempts us to dismiss unfavorable facts as trivial but to elevate favorable ones as monumental. It assumes any conspiracy by our enemies but justifies every excuse by our allies. It spreads rumor over reason, and demands suspicion in place of trust. It extends the benefit of doubt to political friends while rushing to judgment of political foes. Any evidence of wrongdoing is sufficient to condemn an ideological enemy, but there is never enough to convict an ally.
Unrestrained partisanship leads to escalating violence. It is strong, intoxicating drink that excites animosity and deadens senses. Its disciples are constantly attacking, ever preaching doom, and often profiting from fear. Partisanship trumpets the violence of other parties, but only whispers that of one’s own. It is afraid to give even an inch of ground for fear it would expose one’s own party to bombardment by the adversary. Thus, it shelters extremists for fear of alienating allies and justifies their offenses because their opponents are even worse.
Unchecked, partisanship inevitably destabilizes a republic. It sows distrust in public officials and institutions as partisans recklessly escalate attacks on one another, fostering a general sense that everyone is corrupt. And it weakens adherence to the rule of law by cheating us to believe our opponents are so odious that different rules must apply. Partisanship inspires fear not faith, and trusts might rather than right.
As a political conservative, I am concerned about the effects of socialism, secularism and immorality. While disagreeing on policies, I appreciate my progressive friends’ concerns for racism, nationalism and inequality. As Americans debate the challenges we face, we should be united against forces that subvert the Constitution, our republican institutions and democracy. Partisanship, or the “spirit of party,” as Washington called it, is democracy’s “worst enemy,” a spiral of revenge leading to “frightful despotism” and the “ruins of public liberty.”
If Washington gave us our foremost warning about partisanship, Abraham Lincoln gave us our foremost example for defeating it.
First, Lincoln avoided extremes. Northern abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison denounced the Constitution as “covenant with death” because the Framers had compromised on slavery. Southern secessionists, led by John C. Calhoun, warred against the Declaration of Independence, attacking the truth that “all men are created equal” as a “self-evident lie.” Lincoln, in contrast, revered both founding documents. Though he “hated slavery ... as much as any abolitionist,” he worked within the Constitution to bring about a “new birth of freedom” for a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Lincoln also resisted prejudice. In his day, newspapers were even more partisan than now, but Lincoln read widely, including pro-slavery papers. He understood both sides of an issue, often arguing the opposite of his own to test its strength. He opposed the “monstrous” injustice of slavery without ever condemning slaveholders or Southerners.
Finally, Lincoln withheld judgment. In his second inaugural address, Lincoln pronounced the Civil War as the “woe due” to “both North and South” for the “offense” of slavery. Perhaps never in history had the leader of a government besieged by rebellion declared the cause of the war to be a national sin shared by both combatants. In appealing to the Biblical teaching “let us judge not that we be not judged,” Lincoln prescribed the antidote for the poison of partisanship.
We need the same prescription now. On both sides, political extremists insist oppressions are so dire that revolution is necessary. We rightly praise those patriots “who more than self their country loved” in sacrificing their lives for our country. But in our day, patriotism may mean living for the Constitution as much as dying for it. And it may not be self but party, or partisanship, we should be willing to sacrifice. We can begin by applying the same standard to allies and enemies alike.
Michael Erickson is an attorney in Salt Lake City.