George Washington Was Right, Political Parties Are Worthless

In his Farewell Address, the first president warned about the potential threats to American democracy.
Portrait of President George Washington engraving 1897
Portrait of President George Washington engraving 1897
THEPALMER via Getty Images

I was in college, like many people voting for the first time.

“What party do you want to register in?” asked a person at a table on campus.

“I ain’t in no political party,” I told him. “I’m independent.” (It sounds better when you say it with my New York accent.)

Two weeks later I got a letter welcoming me as a member of the Independent Party, which existed back then.

I called them immediately and told them to take me off their rolls. “I don’t wanna join any club that wants me as a member,” I said, paraphrasing Groucho Marx.


I don’t know if the Independent Party is still out there, but that’s the closest I’ve ever been to being part of a political party. I prefer to say I’ve never belonged to a political party and never will. I’ve never understood their value, our attraction to them, or why anyone would need them to tell you how to vote in a given election. Why do we even need them at all? We don’t. They do more harm than good, are more unproductive than constructive, and make it too easy for voters to make choices that are convenient and casual rather than contemplative and careful.

[Partisanship] serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection... [Parties] 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.”

I didn’t write those words. George Washington did more than 200 years ago, in what came to be known as his Farewell Address.

It would be difficult to find a historical document in this country with a more direct and acerbic assessment of political parties. Washington, whose birthday we celebrate in February, was terrified of the formation of political parties. They were called “factions” in his day. He believed that individuals would become so enamored of their connection to a party and so covetous of what the party could provide them that they would put matters of party over matters of country.

If you look at the current mess that is our political discourse today, and the pernicious influence of political parties in the progress and life of our nation, you understand how prescient the first president of this country was.

Pundits will tell you that parties have a purpose. “A very useful shortcut for voters,” David Karol, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, told me in a 2016 interview.

“If voters see a party label,” he said, “they instantly know a lot about that candidate, and that’s very helpful for those who want to cast meaningful votes.”

Why? Because we’re unwilling to do the homework necessary to ensure we are informed as voters? The word “shortcut” is troublesome. We put more research time into purchasing our next automobile than electing our next elected representative.

Our system of government is complex; our problems complicated, human beings, richly nuanced. Party labels are like CliffsNotes, a self-government cheat sheet that leads us to draw misinformed conclusions and make uninformed decisions about who to credit, who to blame and who to vote for.

And they tell us nothing about the most important quality: how a person governs with others.

But are political parties the problem? Hans Noel, a political scientist at Georgetown University and co-author of “The Party Decides,” echoed a common conclusion among scholars: The electorate isn’t any more polarized than it was 40 years ago. But the parties are.

“Most people say they are ‘moderate,’” Noel has argued in the Washington Post, “but in fact the country is polarized around strong conservative and liberal positions.” The parties simply moved in those two directions to align themselves with already-existing ideological divisions in America.

That sounds more like a survival instinct than leadership. But the result is that political species like “Reagan Democrats” and “Eisenhower Republicans” are practically extinct, too moderate for today’s party models.

So, because they want to win — which serves their needs more than ours — the political parties have become more like the electorate itself, since that’s who puts them in power.

If the problem with our political parties isn’t the parties but the partisanship, how what do we do if the electorate itself is partisan? Clearly, the parties aren’t offering any solutions.

But is the electorate?

In his Farewell Address, Washington warned of three forces that threatened the stability of the republic: the allegiance to political parties (political factionalism), interference by foreign powers in the nation’s domestic affairs (permanent alliances) and what he called “geographical discriminations.”

As I noted in a recent HuffPost essay, we have been segregating politically for the last four decades. From 1948 to 1976, election results in most of the nation’s roughly 3,000 counties became more closely divided between Republicans and Democrats. In 1976, in more than half the states, the margin of victory in that year’s presidential election was less than seven percentage points. By the 2020 election, just eight states had margins of five percentage points or less. In 29 states, it was a blowout. More than 20% of the nation’s counties had given more than 80% of their vote to either Joe Biden or Donald Trump.

Ironically, despite the vast wealth of information the digital age can offer, we have been retreating from the kind of enlightenment that comes with routine exposure to different values, ideas and opinions. As we became more mobile as a society, we chose to live in places that were more like ourselves, exacerbating the nation’s partisan divide.

As John Kenneth White, author of “The Values Divide,” puts it, “We have two parallel universes. Each side seeks to reinforce its thinking by associating with like-minded people.”

Many comments on my earlier HuffPost piece seemed to think this was okay. If you didn’t like where you lived, you could move to a place that aligned more with your values. “That is democracy,” one reader commented.

I would argue that is the opposite of democracy. If everyone thought the same way, who’d need democracy? There’d be no need to vote. We’d all agree on everything, right? Yes, that’s an oversimplification, but I have made a similar argument in my talk radio days. “Why would you listen to me if you agreed with everything I said? If you disagree, instead of turning the radio off, that’s when you should turn the radio up.”

The Great American Experiment calls upon us to embrace diversity, to embrace all things in humanity that differ from ourselves, be it cultural, political, racial, ethnicity, sexuality, ideology or any other -ology you can name. Give us your tired and your poor, the statue says. Why now do we seem to have more people than ever who think that’s a threat? Or at least that’s all we seem to hear about, including from someone running for president who not only bathes in such thinking but has followers who adore him for it.

The threat isn’t diversity; it’s the guy demanding ideological purity and uniformity of thought while calling it patriotism. That isn’t America, but if we continue along our current path, that may be all we’ll have left of America.

We don’t have to sit around, hold hands, drink juice boxes and sing “Kumbaya.” The Founding Fathers knew differences were healthy, and that they mattered. But they also knew that our common humanity mattered more, and debates over those differences should enrich our culture, not coarsen it. While herd mentality and tribalism are understandably instinctive traits hard-wired into our DNA across millennia, our power to reason allows us to rise above our instincts. If we’re to make decisions that best benefit our national interest, shouldn’t we engage each other in a way that allows us to see different types of people and different-thinking people as human beings, not adversaries?

In response to all this, the nation’s largest voter bloc is now the independent, decline-to-state voter, apparently disgusted with both political parties (or more precisely, the partisanship therein). But there’s a consequence: The parties become more extreme because the moderate voters have left it.

It’s the ultimate political version of the chicken-and-egg question: Have we done to the political parties what we have done to ourselves, which, in turn, has done to us what we have done to our political parties? Or vice versa?

The Human Genome Project has discovered that humans are more than 99% the same — that every non-age-related difference you can see, including gender and race, is rooted somewhere in the remaining fraction of a percent of our genetic makeup.

Yet, almost all of us spend about 99 percent of the time thinking about the half-percent of us that’s different — not only obsessing over it but even wishing it were more so. What are we losing or gaining in this process as we doggedly cling to our predetermined political ideology?

What now dominates our discourse ― and perhaps the competitive, ratings-obsessed media landscape shares some of the blame ― is that there are so few on the extremes of that discourse who can see the dishonor in what America has become. They cling to their theories; they take umbrage to dissent; they think themselves worthy of praise and their dogma worthy of obedience.

How can you operate a self-governing country as big as ours, as diverse as ours, if too many of us have closed our minds to vibrant political differences and debate? Or if we elect officials who have also closed their minds to vibrant political differences and debate?

Here’s what Washington is saying to us today: You can’t sit this one out. You can’t hide behind your labels or retreat into your comfort zones and cocoons. It doesn’t matter what party you belong to, or what ideology you follow or don’t follow. It doesn’t matter what you perceive as the ideal nation. You can’t afford to sit this one out and let factions rule the day.

But putting an end to the partisan rancor will require us to make a painful admission: The problem isn’t the people in office; it’s us on Main Street, out here in the electorate. We’re the partisans sending partisans to the halls of government, and we’re the only ones who can put a stop to that.

I’d like to think the independent voters, or the ones who call themselves independents, can lead the way ― thinking not about party but who is best to govern the nation; who is more willing to work with others, to ignore the factions and, instead, collaborate and compromise.

Every job ad, every job interview, asks the same questions: Are you collaborative? Do you work well with others? That’s often put at a higher premium than the skill sets themselves.

With our vote, we hire these people. We are the employers. We are the government. Yet, we never seem to ask that crucial question.

Analysts and pundits would say the two parties lie between us and the solution. I say, if you, the voter, are a dyed-in-the-wool supporter of one party or the other, then you, too, stand in the way of that solution.

And there is no singular solution. We’re a pluralistic society fraught with complexities that require a willingness to compromise and a willingness to sacrifice, so we can best satisfy the needs of as many as possible while disadvantaging as few as possible.

The first political party that embraces this notion ― that parts company with the partisan politics and political gamesmanship dominating our discourse, and calls out those who do so, including fellow politicians in their own party and voters who might support them — that’s the party I seek.

This is not a matter of political party or ideology or vendetta against the opposition. It’s a matter of being better keepers of our country. The very challenge Washington brilliantly foresaw when he submitted his farewell address in 1796 — in writing, by the way — rings down through the corridors of history to us. We are now standing on the precipice of a nation in the grip of the very crisis Washington enunciated.

I can’t think of a time in my lifetime when the advice of Washington was more critical, more relevant, and more needed.

Popular in the Community


What's Hot