The American political debate predates the political parties that have gone on to organize the centuries of scripted opposition that we have been conditioned to believe are required for successful government. It wasn’t always that way-almost, but not always. For part of one brief administration, we stood united as one political party, aligned in the celebration of our new found self governing zeal. Our days of unity were numbered though. The forces of division had already begun. The embryo of political opposition had embedded itself within the cabinet of our first president by way of two men whose collective ideas would chart the course for the first 50 years of our nation’s government. Tempered, they were critical to responsible governing. Un-tempered, they would have destroyed us.
The first Secretaries of State and the Treasury, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton respectively found themselves at irreconcilable odds. They weren’t at odds because their political parties required them to be or their special interest groups funded them to be. They were at odds because they believed very different things about government at a time when the pavement of the walk that was our government was still wet. And the thoughts that would guide the path that would leave their footprints for all time to follow were important. Jefferson believed fiercely in the democratic republic who’s ideals he so clearly outlined in the Declaration of Independence. He was the voice of our Revolution and the voice of the enlightened government it gave birth to. Hamilton, on the other hand, advocated for a government much more similar to the British form we had just cast off. We were in uncharted territory at the time. And many, like Hamilton believed that our new form would not work. They viewed Jefferson as an ideologue who’s vision and philosophy lacked practical application. We were new Americans at the time. Some believed in Hamilton’s view. Others, Jefferson. But those on both sides believed something else though. Something much more tangible than a philosophy of government. They believed in a man. They believed in George Washington.
George Washington was better than everyone at everything he did. At least it seemed that way. At 6’2 he was a giant for colonial America. He was the best horseman anyone who ever rode with him had ever seen, which for the day was the most important thing that a man could do well in the eyes of other men. He survived smallpox in his youth-forever inoculating him from the disease. He walked fearlessly among the sick, giving him an air of immortality. There were stories of his invincibility in battle as well, having had four holes shot in his red coat and several horses shot out from under him as a captain fighting as a Brit in the French and Indian War.
His daring conquests against the British Army had made him the most famous man in the new world. After being beaten out of New York and across New Jersey, losing half of his Army against the same British he once served, he launched one last resolute attack across the icy Delaware River from Philadelphia into Trenton, giving the colonials a daring victory to feed the spirit of our revolution for the winter of 1776 into 1777. He had every reason to retreat and regroup. He did not. He had bested the most powerful army the world had ever seen and won our freedom. He had rode out as president, the only president to ever do so, with an Army to put down the Whiskey Rebellion. He was the human embodiment of our executive branch. And though he allowed his cabinet to explore the left and right limits of progress as a nation, mostly in the form of Hamilton and Jefferson’s bickering, Washington ensured that the footprints in the pavement that dried behind them would, at all times, be traveling forward. Writing to Jefferson in 1792, Washington rebuked,
“How unfortunate and how much is it to be regretted then, that whilst we are encompassed on all sides with a avowed enemies and insidious friends that internal dissensions should be harrowing and tearing our vitals. I believe it will be difficult if not impracticable to manage the reins of government or to keep the parts of it together for if instead of laying our shoulders to the machine in which measures are decided on. One pulls this way and the other pulls that, before the utility of the thing is fairly tried it must inevitably be torn asunder and in my opinion the fairest prospect of happiness and prosperity that ever was presented to man will be lost, perhaps forever. “
This was Washington telling Jefferson to quit his partisan bickering and keep his eyes on the prize. It was not given nor received as a request. It was an order.
It was this resolve that the American people assigned their fates to. And in all things, it was Washington who they trusted. He begrudgingly signed on for a second term to see the thing through lest all that they work for be “torn asunder”. But even for him the politics and outcries of our national discourse would grow, and his second term, found him more open to criticism, yet stoic and resolved as ever to lead his people to stability, all be it miserable and exhausted. Jefferson would resign as Secretary of State the following year and run for president unsuccessfully at the end of Washington’s term and then successfully four years later. Hamilton would be killed in an 1804 a duel with then Vice President Aaron Burr at the age 49. Within two decades, the Federalist party he founded, which advocated for a strong executive and a national bank, would be gone. The debate moved on to other issues.
Throughout our history, America has had great variance in our experience with the heads of our government. The one’s we remember well, tend to come in two flavors. Some serve, by chance, at a time of great significance and their character, intellect and executive savvy serve as the fulcrum for which the American people lift themselves from crisis or pivot towards social change. This is Lincoln. This is FDR. This is JFK. These are men defined by crisis and change whose will and guidance have preserved our nation when perhaps our future was not so certain. Others we remember are the great leaders, above the political fray, whose astute judgement moved us forward, away from crisis and on to a stronger future. This is Jefferson, Jackson, Eisenhower and of course Washington. Though many of these men lived through crisis prior to taking office, something about their experience enabled them to wield power effortlessly with an unquestioning obedience from the American people and in turn from their government. What they had is what we so desperately crave now-the unwavering trust and allegiance of the American people.
As we assemble to pick our new head of state this next year, we must measure our options wisely, though I fear we’ve already lost this contest to the same forces of dissent present in Washington’s cabinet 230 years ago. The great leaders of crisis mean hard times, death and war. Those are the leaders you can’t and hope never to choose. So in our hearts we long for the transcendent leader who can stay above the fray and unite us in our march forward towards continued peace and prosperity. The leader who, though forces at work move to pull the very fabric of our discourse apart, stands silently above it, holding watch over our government and our people, as Washington did when Jefferson and Hamilton had their earthly squabbles. This is what we long for. And for those of us not imprisoned by the dangerous vigor of blind ideology, this is what we vote for.
There’s a problem though. And it’s not going to fix itself over the next 12 months. The fray today is too big. Our political factions are more polarized than we have been since the Civil War, arguing with great passion, things that simply don’t matter any more. Our all powerful media knows no other way than to fan the flames of outrage and discontent, providing heat and oxygen to a flame that, if it were up to the people alone, would have long died out. And those who might rise above it, the great men and women of our day, understandably, aren’t interested.
Things look dim. We are hungering for someone, anyone, who isn’t poisoned by the sickness of our political discourse. We want it so badly that we’re clinging to candidates, the “anti-establishment” ones on both sides, that are comically unsuited for the title of leader of the free world just to stave off accepting that we are exactly where we are. We are stuck.
Though I commend our current administration for driving needed progress in narrow, long overdue areas, I also regret that the division in our nation has grown. Our executives over the past 30 years have operated within the fray, not above it. Which leaves us where we are. For four more years at least, bumping along the seabed of our potential through the irrelevant debate of the last 50 years. For the last ten elections, there has been a Bush or a Clinton on the general or primary election ticket for President of the United States in nine of them. We are stuck in not just an ideological loop, but a literal one. One that, because of its incessant focus on “shrink vs grow government” leaves us paralyzed and incapable of addressing the critical problems of our government insolvency, entitlement reform and urban decay. We are incapable of addressing the impact our transition from manufacturing to services and technology has had on our workforce-a change that started 40 years ago. We’ve been flatfooted for decades. Now the sickness has seeped into our foreign policy, an impassable barrier that once stood to ensure we faced our external problems as a united front of American will. Head’s of state now address our congress without the consent of the president. Things are dim. But fear not. There’s a light on the horizon of our long, dark political night. Change is on its way.
The 2012 Presidential election was the first one, by law, that my generation would have been able to participate in, as a running member. My generation, the one that had internet in college. The one that was too young to care about the color of people’s skin or their sexual orientation. The one that spent all of our 20’s and most of our 30’s fighting the longest war our country has ever seen, only to likely have to fight it again in our 40’s. The generation whose social security checks won’t be there when we retire at the trajectory we’re going. My generation who will live to watch our children grow up in the global climate impacted by three hundred years of industrial growth. My generation who has participated in a workforce whose wages haven’t increased since we’ve been in it. My generation is coming. It may be a bit. But our votes count. And soon we will be there with more than our votes. Not those of us who rushed into the political life because we were drawn to it as a vocation. They’re already there, driving the churn of the irrelevant debate. But those of us tried by something else. Tried by the crisis and failure of those that came before us. Tried by decades of war and economic struggle. We are coming. And real change will come with us.