Hyper-Partisanship Run Amok! (From 1776 Onwards…)

Oh my, all that yelling and venom and gloating and ridicule, last week from the Republican convention, soon to be emulated, no doubt, when the Demos convene in Philadelphia starting today. (Though we can only pray their denunciations of the opposing candidate will stop short of calling for his execution or banishment to the gulag or, worse yet, to an everlasting intimate relationship with Lucifer, the very Devil himself, in the fires of Hell. That latter image begs the continuing question that served as a subtext throughout the presidential primary season: Is Ben Carson even a little bit sane?)

I tell you, never have we endured such invective, such boiling anger, such a deep and divisive partisan split between opposing factions of our nation.

Except for that nasty business that began at Ft. Sumter 165 years ago, that is. Turned out to be quite a bit more than the kerfuffle that various political leading lights and society matrons expected it to be when they traipsed over the hills with their picnic baskets and parasols to get front row seats on the early Battle of Bull Run.

Behind it lies a serious question: Is the tone and basic civility level of our contemporary politics as troubling and ominous for our democracy as many of us have been fearful that it is?

 

That was a highly divisive era indeed, but thankfully, we can recall the peace and brotherhood reflected by our Founding Fathers, whom we see bathed in soft light and inspired by soaring rhetoric, singing eloquent harmonies while arm-in-arm with their visionary comrades whom they so enjoyed having over for tea and crumpets and elevated conversation in the waning afternoon, all God-fearing and humble and caring for one another down to their very bones.

Except for the fact that Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, the sitting vice president and former treasury secretary, hated each other so much over so many years that they finally decided to settle matters in 1804 with a gentlemanly duel, at which Burr shot Hamilton dead.

Bad as that was for Hamilton, it should not go unnoted that Burr lived another 32 years in relative ignominy, accused of murder in New York and having to flee to the immunity of Washington, D.C. to serve out his remaining term.

The history books do not mention whether his rival Federalists, the party of Hamilton, ever launched into merry chants of “Lock him up!” at their next convention, but we do know that he was largely shunned by a good part of the political establishment, and just three years after killing Hamilton he was suspected and put on trial for the treasonous activity of trying to steal New Orleans from the United States with the help of a few cronies. (He got off on a technicality.)

Hamilton, meanwhile, got himself on the $10 bill and into a best-selling musical two centuries later. Who says losers don’t prosper?

 

 

And then there was the revered John Adams, our second president, whip-smart, internationalist, cultured, but who said of his equally accomplished Revolutionary War compatriot Thomas Jefferson:

“His soul is poisoned with ambition.”

Adams had an even lower opinion of Hamilton:

“That bastard brat of a Scottish peddler! His ambition, his restlessness and all his grandiose schemes come, I’m convinced, from a superabundance of secretions, which he couldn’t find enough whores to absorb!”

Well!  That makes Donald Trump’s derisive comments about “Lyin’ Ted” and “Little Marco” sound rather tame and unliterary in comparison, doesn’t it?

Trump did make a crude reference to Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly and “blood coming out of her wherever” after she saw fit to pose a few hard questions to him in the first Republican debate, but can you even begin to imagine him using the phrase “superabundance of secretions?” 

 

In between the Founders’ various enmities and the tragedy of an actual civil war, there was President Andrew Jackson going toe-to-toe in the 1824 presidential election (at least rhetorically; no fight-to-the-death duels) with two longtime nemeses: John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay. Jackson had bested Adams, Clay, and Treasury Secretary William Crawford in both the electoral and popular vote, but his 99 electoral votes were 32 short of a majority, so the 12th Amendment kicked in for the first and only time in American history, with the vote thrown to the House of Representatives.

That’s when Adams and Clay allegedly teamed up in what Jackson supporters called the “Corrupt Bargain” to elect Adams in exchange for him naming Clay secretary of state, an office that was considered at the time an almost sure route to the presidency.

Though never proven to be a quid pro quo historically, the situation had an odor that didn’t sit well with Jackson and his supporters, who stewed in their resentments and bided their time until they got their revenge in 1828, when Jackson easily beat Adams in a two-way race to become the first president not from either Massachusetts or Virginia.

Later, the always pugnacious war hero Jackson said:

“I have only two regrets: I didn’t shoot Henry Clay and I didn’t hang John C. Calhoun.”

(Calhoun was Jackson’s own vice president, but he had anonymously penned “The South Carolina Exposition,” which suggested that the Tariff of 1828, which had benefitted northern states at the expense of the south, was unconstitutional and fit to be” nullified,” with the specter of South Carolina secession over the matter looming large and active. Jackson was incensed and sent an army to South Carolina as a kind of warning shot, before the matter was settled in a compromise Tariff of 1832. But it only added to his loathing of Clay, who had worked with Calhoun and others in the whole complicated plot.)

 

Behind the pure fun of the Founders’ rhetoric and the Jacksonian-Adams-Clay shenanigans—at least when viewed in the rearview mirror of history—lies a serious question: Is the tone and basic civility level of our contemporary politics as troubling and ominous for our democracy as many of us have been fearful that it is?

It is almost an article of faith these days that we are at each other’s throats in the body politic as never before, that no one listens, no one cooperates, every small matter is a life-and-death struggle for the true soul of democracy. Compromise is a bad word and both sides across the ideological divide claim the other is impossible to deal with and out of step with our history and the needs and desires of our people.

But exactly when hasn’t that been the case? When was this kumbaya period in American history when opposing sides refrained from overheated invective and dire warnings of civilization’s demise if the opposition party assumes power?

Even on as seemingly cut-and-dried a matter as the U.S.’s involvement in World War II, there was significant opposition not only from the usual extreme pacifists and fascist ideologues on the country’s fringe, but from Congress, too, which pushed through a series of “Neutrality Acts” that effectively prevented U.S. response to the growing menace of Germany and Japan, tying an increasingly concerned Franklin Roosevelt’s hands. Critics from the right called him a “warmonger,” while he was accused from the left of being a “fascist dictator.” It took Pearl Harbor for this powerful isolationist tendency to finally give way.

The truth is that there has never been less than nearly full-on jousts and seething, personally inflected arguments through the course of American political history. We are a nation founded upon revolution, when strong and highly opinionated personalities emerged from among the colonists, got a whiff of power, and decided not only that they wanted more, but that they would fight to the death, if need be, to secure it. And they were not about to be cowed by opposition to their opinions from within their own ranks, which was substantial, rancorous, and often full of personal invective and agendas.

 

 

Conservatives in particular tend to see the Founders in a rosy, sentimental glow, bathed in light from a Golden Age of Wisdom, selfless statesmanship, and God-fearing innocence. But if the Founders were wise about anything, it was about the depth and endurance of human weakness, their own very much included.

These were highly flawed and many times venal men (and only men, we should not fail to mention), driven partly by lofty ideals and partly by personal neuroses, resentments, jealousies, and raw animal desire, all of which they struggled (if they struggled at all) to keep in check, just like every other human being who lived before or has come along since.

Our revered Thomas Jefferson, eloquent writer, lofty philosopher and amateur theologian: also slaveholder and very likely father to six children of his slave concubine, Sally Hemings. Assertions of his paternity were circulated widely in the press by opposition Federalists during his presidency, and sixth president John Quincy Adams called him “a slur upon the moral government of the world.”

And today we have to settle for insults like “Crooked Hillary?”

How fun is that compared to the barbs cited above from both John and his son John Quincy Adams, and Teddy Roosevelt observing that President William McKinley had “no more backbone than a chocolate éclair.”?

Among Donald Trump’s many failings would appear to be a profound lack of imagination and literary flair. I’m not sure that’s a forgivable sin in the historically colorful, rough-and-tumble world of American politics.

***

A bit of background from the author/creator and some performance clips from “Hamilton,” courtesy of the PBS News Hour…

 

 

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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com 

Alexander Hamilton photo near top of page taken from a $10 bill by Kentucky resident Don Sniegowski, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sniegowski/

U.S. Capitol Building photo by Kevin Burkett, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/kevinwburkett/

Sketch of black and white figures across table by Adam Sporka, Prague, Czech Republic,some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/adam_sporka/

Great Smoky Mountains photo by John Britt, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/coloneljohnbritt/

6 comments to Hyper-Partisanship Run Amok! (From 1776 Onwards…)

  • Mary Graves  says:

    HI Andrew:
    Great job, especially quoting the very negative comments of our founding fathers. As a political science major, I am probably more used to the fighting that has to happen before a bill is passed or a candidate is selected. I used to like the election process and my favorite holiday is presidents day where my kids and grand kids pick a president and dress up and we have to guess who they are.
    But what happened to dialogue? Talking heads and very little dialogue is barren to me.
    In the book 1776 and the movie, there was an interesting passage where the founding fathers were fighting and arguing face to face over Independence and no one seems to understand the definition. So, the declaration of independence was written in response to the tension so all would understand what independence meant to them.

    I see all the cussing and put downs as an alternative to thinking through and having dialogue about the definitions of what we are fighting for. is it still independence? is it equality? or it is a combination? Perhaps we need a declaration of an integration of independence and equality.

    Andrew, I vote you to write it up. How about the rest of Andrews readers…don’t you think he would be a great one to write up the hybrid of “freedom and equality…a declaration”.
    I mean it! you are the best one to write it, to declare it.
    hugs
    Mary

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      That sounds like a noble project, Mary, though it strikes me that the various rights movements over the years—civil, gay, workers’, children’s, and humans speaking on behalf of the environment and animals—have been trying, in their own ways, to integrate or pair our well-founded emphasis on independence with the often lagging aspect of equality. The Declaration of Independence certainly placed great emphasis on equality, but it has been a struggle to give it its due over 240 years. I think this is the nexus of the disaffection that fuels both Bernie and Trump supporters—they feel the system has been rigged from day 1, and that actual equality of opportunity just hasn’t happened fast enough. Hard to argue with that, and history tells us the powerful and privileged rarely give ground unless the issue is forced on them. Which always takes more time and hard effort than those on the bottom would like, so the struggle continues…Thanks for this line of thinking; I think it hits a rich vein.

  • joan voight (@shapelygrape)  says:

    Well, that was a breath of fresh air…Thanks Andrew. Perspective is a wonderful thing!

  • Angela  says:

    I want to say that, after watching last night’s opening proceedings in Philadelphia. how remarkably devoid those proceedings were of yelling, venom, gloating and ridicule, and what a blessed relief that was. It IS possible to think of building things up instead of leading from fear.

    When Michelle Obama spoke of ‘When they go low, we go high’ I actually felt tears come to my eyes, tears of gratitude and inspiration, to be reminded that there is a different way, a different response, a different path. I was not handed a pair of rose-tinted glasses; I know that this is not the sum total of politics in America, or of the Democratic party, either. But, we have been reminded: another choice, another response is possible, and it is our responsibility to make that choice, every day.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      I found myself thinking that Michelle O.’s speech was the most notable of the evening for me, Angela, so I’m glad you brought it up. It seemed so full of her heart, which she just exuded & exuded through her voice and eyes and what she chose to emphasize. The evening reminded me of my response when I turned on the first Demo debate and Bernie and Hillary were talking to each other and laying out their respective cases like actual adults. “Oh, so this is how it can still happen!” I thought, having endured, with the rest of the viewing public, the adolescent taunts that had suffused the previous week’s Trump-infected donnybrook of a Republican “debate.” The contrast could not have been more stark then, and it is no different today. Watching the clip last night of Trump doing his imitation of the reporter with the disability just chilled me to my bones. This crude juvenile with a serious case of arrested, stunted emotional development wants to represent the best of our country as its president?

  • Rev. Robert Gutleben  says:

    Thanks for putting our history of politics in clearer perspective. When I read and see the extremism and hubris of many of our national leaders I can’t help but think of the words of Colonel Nathan Jessup (played by Jack Nicholson), in the movie, A Few Good Men. “You need me on that wall! You want me on that wall!” In the end Lt. Kaffee, the Navy lawyer (played by Tom Cruise), makes the case that
    Jessup was responsible for ordering a “Code Red” on a young sick marine, who was unable to sit on that wall. The Code Red order resulted in his death.

    Listening to this year’s presidential campaign I can’t help but think that part of the reason we still have a certain kind of freedom and a limited amount of equal humans rights in this country is due to luck. I see Donald Trump as ratcheting up the level of recklessness, desire to place even greater limitations on our Constitutional and Human Rights, and call for a harsh form of national isolationism.

    Even though some of our historical leaders expressed their narcissism through their political ideas, it seems to me that the difference between them and Trump, I think, was their belief in freedom and
    liberty for all, versus Trump, who seems so narcissistic that he is not interested in equality for all people, but only his own way. Maybe behind the words of violence, racism, sexism, homophobia, espoused religious fundamentalism, and disregard for the foundational principles of our country he will turn out to be a more wise and thoughtful leader, if he becomes president. But I doubt it. He is dangerous because he sits on his wall.

    Of course, no one becomes president without appealing to the American voters. Unfortunately, while America has advanced in some areas of human rights, we have lost ground in other areas. It seems to me that since Ronald Reagan there has been a dumbing down of Americans. This, I believe, has much to do with our loss of interest in academics beginning with the murder of President John F. Kennedy, and the prestige given to evangelical/fundamentalism under Reagan. Today our nation is the poorer for its lack of education, and anti-intellectual religious lobbies. This has much to do with the loss of our middle class, and shift toward a kind of oligarchical rule, which thrive among those Trump has stated he loves “the educationally impoverished.”

    So I will finish here by saying, I see this particular presidential election as a shift in American values. And, I fear, Trump, if elected President of the United States, will do us harm that may take us centuries to repair, if it doesn’t destroy us first.

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