(UnitedVoice.com) – In the history of the United States, only one president never belonged to a political party. George Washington. While political parties didn’t exist at President Washington’s first inaugural address, it didn’t take them long to form. The nation’s first president believed strongly that unity was more important than party and that they weren’t necessary for the country to survive and thrive.
Washington said numerous times that he was a president for all American citizens. The Constitution makes no mention of political parties, and the framers didn’t anticipate them at the time of its ratification. However, parties formed quickly as people began to take sides on important issues, such as the need for a national bank, economic policies and foreign-policy issues.
By the end of Washington’s second term, partisanship was alive and well, and America never looked back.
Are Presidents Leaders or Partisans?
America just voted for its 46th President of the United States, almost purely on partisan grounds. Partisanship is defined as a person who adheres to a party, often exhibiting blind, prejudice and unreasoning allegiance. In modern America, it’s not often that a true presidential leader comes along who represents all the people.
The problem with partisanship is that it demands loyalty to a group or political party. However, a president’s loyalty ought to be to the nation. That’s hard to do in a world driven by polar opposite identities formed by extreme positions. In the end, partisanship roots for mediocrity, and solidarity is more important than character.
Sadly, most presidents today are forced to be partisan for two reasons. First, political parties and their structure and support are needed to win national elections. Second, America is drifting apart as one party moves to the extreme far left, and the other tries to blunt its ascendancy. By nature, the partisanship of the two parties is creating division.
There have been a few exceptions in modern politics when presidents were not partisan. In 1952, former World War II General Dwight Eisenhower won 57% of the popular vote and 41 of the 48 states. It was an electoral landslide with 442 Electoral College votes. Leading up to the 1956 election, the incumbent Republican enjoyed a nearly 70% approval rating. In that election, the former president received nearly 58% of the popular vote and picked up an additional state.
In 1980 and 1984, Republican Ronald Reagan inspired the nation and won overwhelmingly against Jimmy Carter for the first term. Running for a second term in 1984, Reagan won all but Minnesota and amassed an astounding 525 electoral votes. During the Reagan years, the country was united behind his drive to fix the economy hammered by Democratic policies in the 1960s and 1970s and destroy communism. He left the White House with an incredible 63% approval rating.
Outside of Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Reagan, the majority of the presidents were partisans, not leaders. They were opportunists who use their political parties as tools to wield in helping them get elected and reelected – even if by the narrowest of margins.
Defining Presidential Leadership
To be a leader, a president must be wise, virtuous, and principled. They have the uncanny ability to lead even the opposition in the most difficult of circumstances.
Unfortunately, partisanship isn’t just an issue for a president. He, or she, must contend in modern times with partisans in Congress who are looking to fulfill an agenda that may not be what’s best for America. That agenda many times is rooted in the next election and the politics of personal destruction.
If any president knows the challenges of partisanship well, it’s Donald Trump.
George Washington knew partisanship was destructive. He wrote in his farewell address in 1796: Partisanship (and political parties) “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.”
Let’s hope one day soon, America can break free of partisan politics. However, for that to become a reality, the people will need to be the initiators and insurers of a less confrontational form of partisan politics not rooted in blind loyalty and hatred for the other party.
Don Purdum, Independent Political Analyst
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