Principle and Partisanship

The American Founders desired that we identify ourselves as partisans for liberty and the republic itself, but the challenge they faced at the outset was that men and women of great intellect and character differed profoundly about what being for the United States actually meant. Were we to embrace Jefferson’s vision of an economy devoted to agriculture and peaceful trade with the world while expanding to the West? Should we follow Hamilton’s designs for extensive manufacturing and global trade with the military power to protect our merchants abroad? These and other arguments all expressed a partisan love of country, but they led to the creation of political parties, collections of citizens and leaders who expressed that love of country in very different ways.

In his Farewell Address, George Washington focused on the potential threats this partisanship might create for the new republic:

“I have already intimated to you the danger of Parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on Geographical discriminations. … This spirit, unfortunately, is inseperable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human Mind. It exists under different shapes in all Governments, more or less stifled, controuled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form it is seen in its greatest rankness and is truly their worst enemy.”

There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the Administration of the Government and serve to keep alive the spirit of Liberty. This within certain limits is probably true, and in Governments of a Monarchical cast Patriotism may look with endulgence, if not with favour, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in Governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be, by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched; it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest instead of warming it should consume.”

For Washington, parties tended to encourage the worst tendencies of representative government. Even if they are a check on tyranny, he believed that they asked too much of the citizenry’s individual restraint and virtue. But not everyone saw the development of political parties as a negative. In 1770, Edmund Burke wrote the first principled–though qualified–defense of political parties in the modern sense. In his Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, he wrote that a party “is a body of men united, for promoting by their joint endeavors the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed.” Burke felt that a party could only legitimately operate on the basis of some shared principle, and that without a basis in principle, parties would quickly degenerate into corruption. Burke thought “honest combination” around political principles was one of the only possible ways of maintaining virtue and liberty in a representative political system.

According to Burke, the danger from partisan division isn’t so much about the existence of parties as it is the growth of factions. In Federalist 10, James Madison defines factions as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” This makes the development of factions one of the greatest “mortal diseases” of representative government. Yet because factions spring from differences of opinion and the liberty to act on those opinions, any possible “cure” for them would be worse than the dangers that flow from them.

It seems like someone in public life is always proclaiming that political partisanship is worse than ever. It isn’t clear to us how you measure how good or bad public debate really is, but we know that as fallen people, we all suffer from the temptation to raise up our own tribe and defend it against all comers–even against honest, accurate or righteous condemnationsIf Jefferson and Adams couldn’t escape this, it seems unlikely that partisans will today, either.

The trouble is that for most of us, politics offers nearly endless temptations to enmity, and it encourages us to close our hearts and minds to what our political opponents might offer the body politic. In today’s highly partisan political climate, devoting ourselves to the public good might mean adopting a somewhat more detached approach to parties and instead focusing on principles as a way of navigating our way through events.

If Burke is right and adhering to principle is the best path out of overly intense partisanship, as people whose lives ought to be steeped in principled belief, Christians might be ideally suited to living as principled partisans.

Two guides on this path are Marilynne Robinson and Peter Augustine Lawler. Robinson is an eminent Christian novelist and essayist, a friend of former President Obama, and a convinced liberal. Until his death last month, Lawler was a professor at Berry College, a widely published political conservative, and Catholic social commentator. While they differed profoundly on matters both theological and political, both exemplify a kind of faithful partisanship.

Lawler wrote a few essays about Robinson, and pointed to her work as a defense of “human exceptionalism.” He viewed her as a liberal that all conservatives should read, and one commentator recently said the same about Lawler from the opposite point of view. Part of the reason for this is that as partisans, both made serious efforts at sympathetically understanding those with whom they disagreed politically, not only as an exercise in humility, but as an appreciation of the grandeur of human complexity.

Lawler and Robinson’s shared sense of wonder at the diversity of human experience, as well as their appreciation for our fallen nature, change how they view day-to-day political struggles. Lawler was fond of saying that everything is getting worse and getting better at the same time, and this is a sentiment that Robinson echoes in some of her most recent writing. Bearing these factors in mind can blunt our worst tendencies in politics. In particular, it moves us away from the tendency to assume the worst about people’s motives.

While of course neither are perfect people, both tried to understand political life as a struggle between competing principles, and took the varied interests that flowed from those ideas seriously. For both, the fault lines of politics were primarily about ideas rather than parties. Although they frequently arrived at divergent conclusions, their shared commitment to Christ created some surprising points of agreement. This might be one of the more important insights we take from their engagement: Christians can offer something unique to our polity in that we maintain a basis for shared agreements about what a moral life looks like, even when those convictions translate into different political ideas, that can help us moderate our disagreements about politics. Our political partisanship is always secondary to our partisanship to the Good News of Jesus.

Both authors offer an example of what this looks like—to engage in public life as Christians and partisans. Done faithfully, this kind of engagement doesn’t mean that we’ll reach the same conclusions, but it does mean that we’ll tackle the challenges of our day seriously, and perhaps with some hope of seeing a path to working together as neighbors.

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  • Brian A. Smith is a Contributing Editor at the Center for Christian Civics, the Managing Editor of Law & Liberty and the author of Walker Percy and the Politics of the Wayfarer. He taught political philosophy and international relations at Montclair State University in New Jersey from 2009-2018.

  • Sarah Morgan Smith is a contributing editor at the Christian Civics Blog and a Fellow at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University, where she serves co-director of the Center’s Religion in American History project.

One Response

  1. Weren’t parties intrinsic to the creation of the government…ie. via the constitution and the federalist/anti-federalist debate? Haven’t the current rules and custom’s of our governments created over many years support a party system? The party’s themselves want the status quo.

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