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The Podium

Filibuster controversy: George Washington’s worst nightmare

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (right) spoke after the Senate passed rules curbing filibusters.

JIM LO SCALZO/EPA

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (right) spoke after the Senate passed rules curbing filibusters.

Each time the rancor of partisanship reaches a new decibel level, the old canard is resurrected -- that, for all its ugliness, this is precisely what the all-seeing Founding Fathers expected of their republic, that true democracy was a messy business and disarray and partisan bloodsport were just a necessary part of the process. Again yesterday, when Senate Democrats embraced the so-called “Nuclear Option” — lowering the bar from sixty votes to a simple majority for presidential nominees — it made the rounds again.

But the truth is that the Founding Fathers, though they may have foreseen something of today’s political mayhem, most certainly did not embrace it as necessary to democracy. Indeed, from the beginning, they recognized it as the most pernicious of all threats to the republic. Consider the words of John Adams in his Oct. 2, 1780, letter to Jonathan Jackson: “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.”

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In 1796, our first president, George Washington, on leaving office, delivered a Farewell Address which can only be compared to that of Dwight Eisenhower’s warnings about the military-industrial complex. Only for Washington, the great fear was hyper-partisanship.

“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism,” he declared. “. . . Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

“It 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. . . 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.”

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Doesn’t sound much like an endorsement of robust partisanship. For Washington the answer to such extremes lay with the citizenry, a lovely idea, except that today much of the political polarization is itself a reflection of that which divides the citizens.

Nor does history suggest that the shape of today’s divisiveness was either intended or enshrined in the vision of those who crafted our institutions. The past reveals nothing so much as the imperative for continual change and adaptation. Today many assume that the great divide between the parties was always a part of the geography of Congress, that the aisle between parties provided a separation designed by our originators. Not so.

For decades there was no pattern to the seating in Congress. Indeed one of the oldest extant seating charts, that dating back to the 24th Congress (1835-37) reveals no partisan pattern to where a House member sat. It appears that friendships, regional alliances, common interests and sheer happenstance were the only patterns to the seating. The rule was first come, first serve. The best seats in the House, literally, went to those who arrived first. In an age of horseback, a lottery had to be held to offset the natural geographic advantage of those members coming from nearby Virginia and Maryland.

Quaint though such an account may be, it is a reminder that what has evolved today, despite all the reverence for the past and tradition, bears little resemblance to the Congress of our forefathers. Invoking their names and their imputed wisdom does not provide a roadmap out of today’s woes. George Washington would have made as little sense out of the term “nuclear option” as he would of today’s political scene — its kamikaze strategies, its extension of First Amendment privilege to corporations (in the Citizens United decision), its members spending hours a day dialing for dollars from party call centers.

No one with any appreciation for history would celebrate the changes to the filibuster. But to call it either a betrayal of the past or a democratic tragedy is to utterly miss the point. The tragedy is that the Senate, by the recklessness of both parties, has allowed the institution to descend to such depths of partisanship that such an action would be seriously contemplated. Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic leader, now has the unpleasant task of defending his dismantling of a time-honored safeguard against the tyranny of the majority. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, has the unenviable task of suggesting things might have gone on as they were. The leaders of both parties must now defend the indefensible.

Revenge is in the air. Call it George Washington’s worst nightmare.

Ted Gup is a Network Fellow of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, teaches at Emerson College, and is a former congressional correspondent for Time Magazine. He can be reached at tedgup@att.net.
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