Over the last two and half weeks there has been a proliferation of hyperbole and Orwellian nonsense. But it is the stunningly rapid role reversal that should generate the most concern among fair minded Americans. Just a few months ago Republicans and conservatives were bemoaning President Obama’s use of executive power; Democrats were unconcerned. Today, President Trump’s progressive opponents vigorously decry his use of executive power, and most Republicans suddenly have no complaints.
By exchanging scripts Democrat and Republican party hacks have unwittingly exposed thoughtful Americans to the factional power-before-principles mindset that permeates political life inside the Washington DC bubble. Said differently, George Washington was right.
In 1796 outgoing President Washington warned Americans that the “alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension” could “gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual.” But even if the worse case scenario did not materialize, President Washington suggested that a passionately partisan approach to government posed other problems.
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, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions.
Today many Americans are passionately factional, they want psychological and political revenge after eight years of President Obama. The means is almost irrelevant, and hypocrisy is the order of the day. A pen and a phone will suffice. Yet an unconstitutional executive action does not magically become holy constitutional writ when aligns with a party’s policy preferences, or is signed by a particular party’s president. If Republicans are ever going to be the party of change, constitutional principles (e.g. the Separation of Powers) must triumph over all partisan views.
Looking beyond the specter of political parties, George Washington observed that humans possess a “love of power, and proneness to abuse it.” As a result, he cautioned leaders to “confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres.” Likewise, James Madison believed it was essential to safeguard the delicate balance of executive, legislative, and judicial power found in the Constitution.
This can only be done by a steady attention and sacred regard to the chartered boundaries between the portion of power vested in the Government over the whole, and the portion undivested from the several Governments over the parts composing the whole; and by a like attention and regard to the boundaries between the several departments, Legislative, Executive, and Judiciary, into which the aggregate power is divided. Without a steady eye to the landmarks between these departments, the danger is always to be apprehended, either of mutual encroachments and alternate ascendencies incompatible with the tranquil enjoyment of private rights, or of a concentration of all the departments of power into a single one, universally acknowledged to be fatal to public liberty.
Regrettably, neither conservatives nor progressives are willing to curtail their political potency in the name of an old-fashioned principle. Instead, elected partisans take turns hypocritically throwing stones at each other. Consequently, political discussions often fail to advance past the trenches of a twitter war. Many Americans are genuinely concerned – they want their representatives to be consistent, not opportunistic. With no miracle in sight Americans can only hope George Washington exaggerated the dangers of factions, and James Madison was too pessimistic about the accumulation of political power in one branch of government. Given the wisdom of the men in question, that hope is a horse headed to the glue factory.