April 7, 2006

U.S. needs engagement not partisanship

In 1798, the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed by the Federalist-controlled Congress and signed by President John Adams to, among other things, suppress the political activities of the opposition Republican Party. The Sedition Act, which made it illegal to criticize the government, was used to imprison a few editors and politicians and scare more of them into silence.

Like everyone else who loves the Bill of Rights, I love to hate the Alien and Sedition Acts. They were the cause of a notorious episode when some of our founders, who had given so much to the cause of political freedom, seemed too eager to sacrifice that freedom for political expediency.

But the Federalists were not a bunch of bad guys. Whatever historians might say about the pathologically ambitious Hamilton or the stunningly egotistical Adams, the Federalists, like the rest of the Revolutionary generation, understood the possibility of true self-government that their new republic promised, and they thought they were doing what was necessary to save that government.

To them, creating and enforcing the Alien and Sedition Acts did precisely that. It stopped the insidious dissidence coming from the opposition, and prosecuted those whom they believed sought to provoke war with Britain. They honestly thought they were saving the country. Their policies were despicable, but their intentions were not nearly so.

In a great book on the Alien and Sedition Acts, Freedom’s Fetters, John Morton Smith shows how the Federalists became so convinced of their rectitude that they began to mistakenly conflate their party with the government they had been elected to serve. As Smith puts it, “By identifying their administration with the government and the government with the Constitution, the Federalists construed criticism of the administration as opposition to the government and an attempt to subvert the Constitution.”

Fortunately, since the Federalists of 1798, no political party has tried to use legislation to silence the opposition party. Unfortunately, the spirit behind the legislation is still alive today.

As the case of the Federalists demonstrates, when an administration has convinced themselves that they, and they alone, are for America, their logic has a devastating conclusion. Namely, those who do not agree with them are against America. Therefore, those who believe this refuse to entertain the possibility that those who are against the administration might still be for the country.

The Bush administration has consistently confused opposition to their administration with opposition to America. But I’m not just blaming the current administration. They certainly are egregious offenders, but they are not alone. It seems to me that in every corner of American politics we are refusing to give our opponents the benefit of any doubt. I’m not talking about culture wars or polarization in the electorate. I’m talking about goodwill.

Let me distinguish myself from the mushy multitude that is clamoring for a return to the political center. I believe in the benefits of a genuine two-party system—America has been well served by the system in the past and we will continue to benefit from it in the future. I’m not concerned about having two parties that disagree with one another. I’m concerned about having two parties that make every effort to demonize one another.

I’m concerned for a country in which, more and more, our two parties claim that the other does not want what’s best for our people. For the most part, American politics have been a disagreement about means, not ends. Both parties agree that we should improve public education in this country; what they disagree on is how to improve it. By virtue of being American, virtually all of us agree on the ideals of America: justice, opportunity, and freedom for all our citizens. We don’t disagree on that. We just can’t seem to agree on how to get there.

And that’s OK. As I said before, disagreement in democracy is not only inevitable, it is beneficial. But whenever a pundit begins to doubt the intentions and not the policies of an opponent, the whole nation is degraded.

The success of a two-party system depends upon each party’s ability to engage the other in civil and constructive debate. The vilification of our time undermines that necessary condition. Whether it is at a school board meeting or the chambers of the Senate, a general feeling of trust is vital to any meaningful political effort.

Perhaps if one party had a commanding majority in the electorate and in the government, that party could afford to ignore the minority. However, that scenario rarely happens in America. When it does, it is at best, evanescent, and that is not really an option now.

Therefore, both parties, particularly in Congress, must make a genuine effort to engage the other on solutions to problems instead of lobbing slander across the aisle.

On March 4, 1801, Thomas Jefferson, the politician the Federalists hated most, was inaugurated as President of the United States. At his inauguration, Jefferson told the country: “But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”

Despite the fact that the Federalists were sure that this supposed French-controlled radical atheist was going to destroy the country, no one considered violent resistance as a solution. In fact, the prevailing response by the Federalists was that they would just have to work harder at defeating him in the 1804 election.

The Federalists’ respect for the principles of the government trumped their desire to control that government. Having trust not just in our opponents but in the integrity of our political system should be the rule in this country, not the exception, just as the Alien and Sedition acts have fortunately been the exception and not the rule.