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Untangling Partisanship – Founding Wisdom

Posted on Thursday, September 23, 2021
by AMAC, Robert B. Charles

Untangling modern partisanship is a thankless job, and yet one that may become more necessary as tempers rise, mandates proliferate, and a sense of drift from our constitutional moorings continues. Moderation and principled thinking are compatible. We need a deep breath.

The argument: Principled, historically grounded, factually accurate leadership, however, applied, requires a degree of moderation.

Put differently, openness in conversation, respect for differing opinions is essential for distilling truth – and distilling truth is vital for a republic’s preservation.

Two reasons explain why we do not have good conversations these days. One is that some think truth does not matter. The other is that impatience overwhelms us.

So, here is the rub. Far too many times, we think respect by others for our views is out of reach. We give up before we begin, avoiding a conversation sure to fail.

Sadly, we are not always wrong. Given public discontent, disinformation, and raw nerves, we often walk in a jungle full of mutual recrimination, coiled to pounce. Too often, we encounter what we expect; and worse, some bad actors want this.

So, what is happening? Three things.

First, many Americans are irked by what they hear, grow disaffected, and recoil. Second, many stumble into conversation, only to hear things they do not want to hear – and snapback, fulfilling their own prophesy, eliciting an excited reaction.

Third – no matter where you are in this process – you can lose faith in it. This is the beginning of wisdom – or rejecting that conclusion is. Some caves are tunnels.

Failure to see the light at the end of the tunnel is part of why public dialogue is a mess. Some do not want to find truth, while others have lost faith in finding it. Yet, our Republic’s future depends on us having faith in the process and in finding truth.

In effect, we have grown tired of distilling truth from differences until, at last, we hold the gem in hand, too labor-intensive. It might have worked for the Founders, even post-Civil War, post-Depression, post-crises, but not in our time.

Wrong. That view breaks faith with those who got us here. They differed violently but then figured out how to “spin down” after they got “spun up.” They had to relearn patience, to recognize they had the power – in each generation.

In practical terms, as one party’s adherents cancel, chide, default to calling the other a “cult,” we break with our past. We break the system of recovery, break laws in the name of justice, fail each other.

This is what needs to stop. It is also what our Founders feared most – that our worst instincts would overwhelm our better ones. Washington was deeply concerned about this kind of runaway temperament, one that subverted common cause for emotion and power. Much could be said, but a few lines explain.

Whatever your views, they got there from persuasion, listening, reading, living, learning, being you over a lifetime. What our Founders put in motion allowed that.

What did they say, warning us of today? Washington was a believer that stability required balancing “firmness” with “prudence” and “conciliation.” As none among us is God, we must approach things with conviction and humility.

Not all do, but we must – and in that way teach. Washington modeled that behavior, which is why he was universally respected – and not just on the battlefield. As John Adams noted, “He seeks information from all quarters, and judges more independently than any man I ever knew.” All this is hard.

A sustainable society ebbs and flows with preferences, but within constitutional parameters, only by a “spirit of moderation,” wrote Hamilton, not an “intolerant spirit … ever so much persuaded of their being in the right in any controversy.”

For honor, he and his son died at the hands of those who disagreed, but the legacy he left was one of sober reflection on unity, liberty, and the “spirit of moderation.”

John Adams, like George Mason, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, and James Monroe, understood mankind is subject to error, inducement, ambition, avarice.

Still, these Founders were all optimists – as they would never have staked all on ideas in our Constitution and Bill of Rights, and – remarkably – faith in us.

Wrote Adams, the political realist, “without the great political virtues of humility, patience, and moderation … every man in power becomes a ravenous beast of prey.” That is why an appeal to our better selves is part of the constitutional understanding. A degree of maturity, morality, and concern for the future – as well as respect for the nation’s past and each other – was expected.

One other thing. They all imagined that we understood that pursuing truth mattered and was only possible collegially. They thought we would understand the obligation of inquiry, persuasion, and need to untangle partisanship to find truth.

In short, principled, historically grounded, factually accurate leadership demands moderation. It still does, and all the constitutionalists among us know it and must promote it. Our Founders would expect that of us, as it is what they did.

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2 years ago

Yes, sometimes Impatience does overtake me because I get very upset when people don’t get to the point! … I AM so tired of headlines telling me that here are 9 things we can do to rectify something and then go on and on before getting to the point. I’ve been in sales all my life and I would have been thrown out droning on and on and not getting to the point! You will NEVER hold anyone’s attention for long without GETTING TO THE POINT!

2 years ago

While I agree with your views in general and from the historical context of your article, two parties generally have to share some common values, ideals or goals in order to reach a potential consensus for mutual agreement. They both have to want to achieve some outcome that is positive for both sides. Your article touches on how the Founding Fathers did indeed share some common ideals and goals and just basically had slightly different approaches on how to get there. Otherwise absent any such commonality, all you have is two opposing parties with nothing in common from which to try and forge a compromise that amounts to the side with more power dictating to the side with lesser power. That of course is not a recipe for long-term, mutual co-existence in peace.

Fast forward today to the current conflict over the direction of the country entailing capitalism versus socialism. These two opposing economic models for society share virtually nothing in common with each other. One trusts the individual and markets to properly allocate capital, while the other is a top down approach where the central government directs all markets and controls where capital is allocated. Two fundamentally opposite approaches with decades of known historical outcomes for each side. Capitalism consistently wins from the perspective of creating greater opportunities and larger improvements in lifting societies up the economic ladder. Socialism has consistently failed in every country where it has been adopted and has consistently impoverished the masses and reduced the standard of living for them.

Thus what you would call partisanship, because there is no common ground from which to form a viable, long-term compromise that is truly acceptable to either side. So how would you suggest we achieve “moderation”, or an acceptable compromise, between two sides that literally have completely opposite values and goals in this case? I look forward to your response. Thanks

J Henry Thomson
J Henry Thomson
2 years ago

I enjoyed the article and wholly agree with Peter’s comments, especially about including prayer. However the author mentioned three things then went on to list first and third but where did second go?

2 years ago

I agree with virtually everything but the principle of “persuasion”. I much prefer “self-evident” truths. Persuasion beguiles and can easily be confused with debauchery, demagoguery, seduction, or brainwashing for opportunistic reasons.. As the author states patience is at a premium and precious few seem to appreciate or excruciate over developing it. In these times it is obviously quite a the life-saver. Lastly, the author could have remarked on the power of prayer. This was important to the Founders who also at times prayed before their meetings. I don’t see how this can be ignored since in today’s treacherous climate we survive obviously only by The Hand of a Providential God and not by our own Wisdom. (Whether or not we prayed for it or deserve it.)

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