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Column: George’s Advice on Role of Party

In his Farewell Address in 1796, giving his final counsel to his country, after two terms as President, George Washington warned:

“Let me … warn you in most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally ... [T]he spirit is inseparable from our nature, having its roots in the strongest passions of the human mind … It [party] serves always to distract the public counsels and enfeebles the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riots and insurrection … The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power, by dividing and distributing it into different depositaries, and constituting each the guardian of the public weal against invasions by the others, has been evinced by experiments ancient and modern; some of them in our country and under our own eyes.”

Deep concern was expressed as well by James Madison in Federalist Paper 10:

“Complaints are everywhere heard … that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties … The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man. The zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points … and attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power … have in turn divided mankind into parties”

Madison, like Washington, argues, in the Federalist Paper 10, that division of powers, checks and balances, and assuring minority views have a place at the table, is the only safeguard to assure liberty by bringing all into the dialogue and finding common cause among different factions.

But for far too many, party becomes “the end,” rather than the means to the end of “good government.” The stalemate on addressing the current fiscal cliff gives witness to the disaster that threatens when “the common good” loses out to “political advantage” of party or office.

Parties tend to punish those who engage in any dialogue with the opposition or accommodation that seeks a middle ground. We need a genuine dialogue in Congress and between Congress and the President. We need diverse voices on City Council and the Alexandria School Board — the goal should not be perpetuation of one party control and incumbency. Our founding fathers gave sage and useful advice about the role of party, we should follow that counsel.

Carlyle C. (“Connie”) Ring, Jr. was former City Councilman (1979-88); School Board member (1969-78); ARHA Board member (1999-2010), and chairman of the Alexandria Republican City Committee (1962-68).