George Washington Would Be Appalled

George Washington would be appalled. At a time when domestic and global problems pose serious threats to the United States, the Republican Party has become the party not only of “less government”, but of active hostility to the very idea of government itself. We are all familiar with the right wing’s unending rhetoric that “government is the problem”, that government is the enemy of individual freedom, that government regulation impedes the ability of business to grow unfettered by unnatural restraints. For every Republican candidate, this mantra has become an oath of fealty to the most extreme elements of their party.

Even those whose self-interests government currently serves have yielded to the government-hating rhetoric of the Tea Party and their extreme right wing corporate backers. Voters nationwide support candidates who attack the very health care programs upon which so many of them depend, programs that enable their children to receive medical care and keep their aging parents alive. Doesn’t matter — somehow they’ve been convinced that government-supported medical care is an assault on their freedom to… do what? Get sick and die? Reject public health programs that provide the main defense against deadly epidemics?

Well, they’re not going to listen to me so I’ll bring in someone with a lot more political credibility: George Washington. Here’s what he had to say about government in his Farewell Address of 1796:

“… remember especially that for the efficient management of your common interests in a country so extensive as ours a government of as much vigor as is consistent with the perfect security of liberty is indispensable. Liberty itself will find in such a government, with powers properly distributed and adjusted, its surest guardian. It [Liberty] is, indeed, little else than a name where the government is too feeble to withstand the enterprises of faction… “

Washington’s view was that of a mature, reflective man who effected one of the most momentous events in modern history, the creation of the United States of America. How powerfully this contrasts with the infantile anti-government rants of the Tea Party or their Republican enablers who rail against government’s presence wherever it may appear.

Hypocrites? Certainly. I haven’t heard of any Republican congresspersons rejecting the fantastic life-long health plan that every member of Congress receives from the government. Nor am I aware of Tea Party activists avoiding the federally built and maintained Interstate highways. Nor have any corporations that contribute to Republican candidates rejected generous federal tax loopholes and subsidies. Nor do they abjure hiring lobbyists to ensure the government does their bidding. Hmm. Government seems to be working pretty well for them.

But let’s get back to the quote by the guy who could not tell a lie. For Washington and the founders of our nation the terms “government” and “liberty” did not just apply to their own time and place, but were inseparable by nature. Although it may be impossible to imagine given the pathetic intellectual level at which politics is conducted today, our nation’s founders brought deeply considered philosophical positions to their actions. Considering that they put their lives on the line for what they believed, one would hope they understood clearly what they were about.

And the idea of “Liberty” was as precious to them as air. Likewise for them, liberty without the stewardship of a strong government was “little else than a name”. Liberty did not mean the ability of one group to exploit the resources or mechanics of government for its own ends. Liberty meant the ability of the government to maintain a cohesive national identity while administering programs that promoted the well-being of its citizens. It meant protecting the rights of all citizens against those who would seize power — over individuals or the government itself — either by force, legislative or judicial manipulation, or unjust appropriation of wealth. Above all, Liberty depended on the ability of all parties to recognize their mutual interests in keeping the government viable.

Washington was not naïve. He recognized the danger of “the spirit of encroachment [that] tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one”, that is, the late 18th century version of government becoming too powerful. But he also warned “against the baneful effects of the spirit of party [politics] generally”, for the spirit of division has “its root in the strongest passions of the human mind.” The problem, as Washington foresaw, was precisely what split this country during the Civil War and what threatens it today — that the passion-driven spirit of division and contention would tear apart the bonds of civil society.

There is plenty of room in Washington’s vision of liberty and government for people to disagree over what constitutes good policy. Once upon a time in America such debates between and within the parties actually addressed government’s legitimate stance on a given issue: labor unions, foreign aid, welfare, declarations of war, voting rights, civil liberties, etc.

Never, however, has Washington’s core principle ever been subject to this level of attack. Washington believed that government is the sole reliable preserver of liberty. Now we are in the midst of a paralyzing conflict in which a major political party attacks the very existence of government and its ability to act to the people’s benefit.

Many prominent Republicans call any policy that even mentions the public good with being “Stalinist” or “dictatorial”. President Obama’s bailout of the largest banks, an example of too much corporate influence over government, is termed “socialism” by ill-informed voters who don’t even know that banks controlling the government is the opposite of socialism. One only has to insert the term “government” into a debate to generate a Pavlovian frothing at the mouth and charges that the president is a Communist agent in disguise. Actually, judged only by their policies, one can argue that Obama lies somewhat to the right of Richard Nixon who, by present-day Republican standards, in terms of government action on behalf of the poor and middle class, would lie somewhere in Stalinist territory himself.

Washington, as noted, recognized government’s tendency to abuse its authority and he was adamant that we follow Constitutional guidelines in reining in that tendency. It was inconceivable to him that policy disagreement should lead to all-out attacks on the federal government’s ability to preside over its proper duties and responsibilities. That leads, he knew, to the rapacious predations of those who already possess inordinate power. That way, he warned, lies unending contention and ultimate disintegration.

The right wing Republican party of today is fulfilling the primary fear that George Washington had for this nation: that party politics, fueled by anger and resentment and greed, would lead to a crippling of our government. In this complex, heavily armed, and volatile world, a strong, healthy government, both supported by and held in check by engaged citizens, is the only viable instrument for preserving Liberty. It may not be an ideal instrument for the preservation of liberty, and it certainly is frequently directed to destructive ends, but there isn’t much else available to do the job. Government provides the structure within which we can exercise Liberty, even if that pursuit leads us to challenge the government, create institutions that operate outside its purview, or reject it. To some extent, Washington and the other founders assumed we, the people, would find a balance. But they knew that if government’s ability to function were destroyed, the result would be the destruction of the Constitution and the liberty it so imperfectly, but sincerely, guarantees.

Hey America, who’s your daddy? George Washington — and the old man still makes sense today.

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  1. May 8, 2013  9:12 pm by Jerry Muller Reply

    Excellent opinion piece. I often think that the current Republican Party and its Tea Party supporters have no idea of the experiences that went into the creation of our Constitution. Washington and the rest of the founders were trying to address the disaster that was the Articles of Conferation. The very type of government the radical right wants to put in place. Thanks for your article. I will pass it along.

    • May 8, 2013  11:05 pm by Barton Kunstler Reply

      For some reason I'm still amazed at how the founding fathers are referenced and how core terms like "rights" and even "government" are used, misused, and abused by people whose policies violate not only the spirit of these ideas, but their very meaning. "Gun control", "liberal", "homosexual", and "government" are used as rabidly and with as much sense as medieval mobs once used the term "devil". Thanks for passing the article along.

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