Searching for common sense in politics

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Past American Presidents Warned Us About Ourselves

In 2016, America is bitterly divided. That is without question. But, as I wrote last week, America has always been divided, to varying degrees. Much of the division can be attributed to radical partisanship, which has existed since the time of our very first president. And because it is partisanship that decides who our president is, we are always led by a person (so far always a man) who buys into the partisan extremes. We simply go from one extreme to the other.

We didn't have to be this divided
There have been a few (very few) instances of our president trying to warn us about ourselves. I can think of two instances in particular. In both, the president making the "common sense" plea to us was on his way out of office, and therefore did not have to worry about winning any more elections. With the burden of partisanship removed, they were able to freely express their concerns to us.

But we didn't listen, because we only hear what we want to hear.

The only president who was not chosen by party politics was our first, George Washington. But even before he left office, partisanship had begun to take hold in the country. As he prepared to leave the President's Mansion (the White House was not yet finished), he saw the dangers of partisan bickering, and he warned the nation that pursuing that path would lead to major problems.

His warning is included in what is known as Washington's Farewell Address. It is chock full of great advice, none of which we took seriously. Here are some highlights:
Washington warned us to avoid partisanship

  1. Washington warned against political parties putting themselves ahead of the people. He said that they could lead to "the will of a party" being put before "the will of the nation." (Boy, don't we know it.
  2. One of his warnings is absolutely pertinent today as we deal with Russia's election tampering. He said that the "spirit of party...opens the door to foreign influence and corruption." Somebody should have told Putin's puppet Donald Trump and State Department for Sale Hillary Clinton about this.
  3. He also warned against accumulating debt. I don't think I need to explain how much we messed up that advice.
There are many more great nuggets of advice in the address. If we had listened to even some of them, perhaps our history wouldn't be defined by division and bickering.

Another president who warned us, on his way out of town, about our own worst tendencies was Dwight D. Eisenhower. In Eisenhower's Farewell Address, he told Americans to be wary of what he called the "military-industrial complex." He described this as the collaboration between our nation's military and the defense contractors who supply it. When taken together, they add up to a vastly powerful group that can influence public policy.

We ignored Ike's advice
The only evidence you need to see the truth of his warning is the wars that have taken place with little or no justification other than the might of our military.

In addition, Ike, like Washington, warned us against racking up massive public debts. Again, however, the greed of our government overtook common sense and we ignored his advice.

These instances of common sense from presidents points out a vicious "catch-22" that we find ourselves in. If a candidate for president spoke in the way these two men did in their final addresses, that candidate probably would not be elected, because the powerful parties would push them out. It's only when they had nothing left to lose that they could express their fears about our future, and by that time they were largely ignored.

It may not be too late, however, Maybe the deep divide present in 2016 will lead us to reevaluate our process. Maybe the partisan system will lose power and we will begin to listen to Washington's advice, only 220 years late. I doubt it will happen, but maybe there is a glimmer of hope.

What do you think? Comment below.


1 comment

  1. What a divisive article. It's not like we can't see that you too are trying to tell people how to be divisive as well. Instead of telling it from the perspective of Washington or Adams...or even Lincoln, you had to wield your own knife of division. Shame on you!


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