Here Comes The General
Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair. The event is in the hand of God.
— George Washington
My first instinct after this election was to find a place of grace and positive spirit to move forward. Having recovered that optimism, now it’s time to act.
But what are we to do?
Some time ago I wrote about an idea for The Millennial Party.
What we learned from the the election of 2016 is:
- Not all Millennials think alike. A demographic is not a psychographic.
- The politically homeless right now are moderates, not Millennials.
- A ton of people didn’t vote.
Andrew Sullivan wrote an essay on the Trump Presidency called The Republic Repeals Itself. Sullivan’s view is dark. But there is a burst of light at the end. An American who predicted this day might come in his farewell address: George Washington. He saw it coming:
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. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.
Part of what made Washington a genius was his understanding of the dialectic: Take a stance strongly on one side, and watch the precisely opposite camp form on the other side. The transition from Obama to Trump strikes me as exactly this type of swing of the pendulum.
After Washington left politics two of his fellow founding fathers — Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson — began precisely the kind of partisan fighting our first President feared. Hamilton’s Federalists and Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans began a spirited conversation that would become the mechanism by which our country, in fits and starts, advanced.
Afters years of disagreement, Hamilton had the courage and intellectual honesty to eventually support Jefferson — and at the last second — a cross-party endorsement that stunned the political elite. Hamilton himself could not run due to the fallout of a marital affair. He threw away his shot at the Presidency, Jefferson beat Aaron Burr, and Hamilton was killed by Burr in a now infamous duel and musical.
Burr is now a villain in our history books.
The dialogue between two camps, then relatively civilized, became the engine of our growth, even as the precise nature of those two camps evolved. Sometimes a camp would split, as the Democrats and Republicans did, and sometimes another camp would arise to take over another via inception, such as the Whigs.
This worked for a couple hundred years.
But now we are a stuck, and our current President-Elect illustrates what happens when the electorate strikes back at a broken and “rigged” system.
For some reason I’m reminded of a memorable quote from the Nicky Santoro quote in Casino, delivered by Joe Pesci:
And everybody began to tumble, one after the other… just like dominoes… we managed to really fuck it all up.
The electoral college works against the equality of the states, not towards it. A bipolar system is saddled not only by bipartisan fighting, but by bipartisan disgust. The mutual loathing across the aisle preempts all progress and has ruined our civilized discourse. Third parties are prevented from emerging due to the monopoly of the duopoly. In places where we might need to, we have neither the will nor the votes nor the ability to transcend the Constitutionalist heritage on the Supreme Court to alter the source code of our Constitution.
Money greases the wheel of American democracy and corrupts it all.
Our system badly demands evolution.
Why mess with what our Founders created? My view is that we have to embody the spirit of the Founders rather than their exact words. We have to heed their intent and not their precise playbook. We have to think — what would they do if they were now alive? If a a ragtag volunteer army in need of a shower can somehow defeat a global superpower, would they not have the courage to reform our own system if it required it?
Isn’t inevitable that a two hundred fifty year old operating system might require an upgrade?
It seems odd to take the Founders solely at their word, when their words were spoken and written at a time of horrendous inequality. A nation founded on liberty did not have much of it. Taking voting rights as proxy, women are no longer worth 0% of men. By the same token, black people are no longer worth 0%, or later 60% (by the 3/5th Compromise), of white people. LGBT Americans were not allowed the right to marry until 2015. We are still fighting about what bathrooms they can use.
Our freedom comes slowly.
During the Civil War we hit a level of division not seen since. 600,000 Americans gave their lives to this Union. They died for our us to be one people. As Lincoln said at Gettysburg:
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last measure of full devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Lincoln was an American Messiah, seemingly sent by God to save our country, our union, and our soul. He prioritized unity above all.
Perhaps we should do the same.
Can we honor the spirit of Lincoln, and put the Union above our own self-interest?
Can we reincarnate the spirit of Washington, a man who warned of partisanship and generally eschewed party bias, and create a nonpartisan movement to unify the country?
It is a profound paradox of our time that the moderates who can unite the country will have to behave like radicals. There is no precedent for this since Washington himself.
Certainly, the idea will be at first ignored. As Mahatma Gandhi once said: “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.”
A movement, no matter how small it starts, is needed.
We must sharpen the contradictions. Dissent was at the core of how our Founding Fathers interacted. We can heed their call and honor the foundation they built by restoring civil discourse — with respectful disagreement — to our operating system.
A strong nonpartisan movement in the middle can do just that. Either of the poles will need to team up with the middle to get legislation through. A bipolar system could become a trinity, a much better set-up for passing laws and getting things done.
Our Founding Fathers would have had the courage to create such a movement if they believed America was in peril. The spirit of George Washington could return, if we bring back his grace, his grit, his courage and his unselfish love of country above all.
Washington stepped away at the height of his power. He taught us how to say goodbye. He implemented, and lived by his own example, the peaceful succession that enables our democracy to thrive. In his farewell address, he warned of the acrimonious partisan fighting we now endure. He feared the rise of an individual who would exploit the system for personal elevation.
Can a radical, nonpartisan moderate movement resurrect the legacy of a man who put country before all else? Can we heed Angelica Schuyler, and include women in the sequel? We wouldn’t have just Founding Fathers and later Lincoln to thank, we would have Re-Founding Brothers and Sisters to be grateful to as well.
Sometimes to move into the future, you must go back the past.
Sometimes, you have to bring back the Founder.