If you are thinking this is another story about the novel Coronavirus that has killed more than 50,000 Americans, think again. The Coronavirus is serious and is likely to be with us for at least the next year. The people we have lost and their families have been changed forever. But the country will recover. Treatments or a vaccine will be discovered, and life will go on.
I do not know if the same can be said for our government. There is another virus that has been slowly destroying our system of government, and that virus shows no signs of weakening. In fact, it is spreading and strengthening. The virus is partisanship.
The Coronavirus should have brought out the best in our American form of government. For more than 240 years, Americans have come together during times of disaster, war and other threats to our way of life. We have been Americans first and Democrats or Republicans second (or third or fourth).
Now we see partisanship becoming the first thing on the minds of many people. Everything is viewed through the lens of political party rather than what is good for America or the world. Rabid partisans justify their views by saying their party is what is best for America, so their partisanship is actually patriotism.
Partisanship is actually the opposite of patriotism. A patriot defends the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution defines and ensures the rights of everyone. Parties make up their rules as they go along. They change based on what helps the party maintain power. You might say that is not true – that Democrats are liberals and Republicans are conservatives. That may be mostly true today, but remember that the anti-communist Republicans of the past are the same ones who are not terribly concerned about Russian interference in the US today. And the pro-civil rights Democrats of today were the defenders of segregation in the 1950s and 1960s. Parties change based upon expedience and will continue to change when it is in their interests. The US Constitution does not change unless we collectively decided to change it. Patriots defend the Constitution, partisans defend the party.
The Coronavirus pandemic has brought out some of the worst aspects of partisanship. When we see politics weighing more heavily than science, and political leaders focused on party interests over the health and safety of the citizenry, politics has crossed the Rubicon.
In Federalist No. 10, James Madison wrote “A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.
Mr. Madison and Mr. Hamilton were influential enough that our Constitution does not address parties. What they feared in 1787 has proven to be true.
I do not know what the solution to irrational partisanship would be. Political identities have become so ingrained into our lives that it may be difficult to cure the disease they cause. There is some hope though, in the number of people who no longer identify themselves as Republicans or Democrats. People who identified with a party for their entire lives have changed their political affiliation to Independent. I do not believe that is because they suddenly decided they are not conservative or progressive. There are plenty of progressive independents and conservative independents. What they have done in many cases is extend a middle finger to the Democrats and Republicans.
We built the greatest country in the world based upon ideas laid out by great leaders such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. Perhaps the best thing we can do now is go back to those founding leaders and the ideas they left for us.