As the Republicans gavel their convention in Tampa to start the coronation of Mitt Romney as their presidential candidate – and with the Democratic party convention following in North Carolina a few days later to re-nominate Barack Obama − the words of America’s first president might be well remembered. George Washington, in his farewell address in 1796, said this about the political party system:
“It serves to distract the Public Councils, and enfeebles the public Administration…agitates the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one…against the other.”
Clearly we have not learned a lot in the past two hundred plus years to prove Washington wrong. Washington’s insights might ring familiar to any of the political leaders coping with party systems in democracies these days. The cacophony of debates emerging from party squabbles has always been the price we pay for the open political process in our societies, for better and for worse. Whether one sits in the House of Commons in London, the Bundestag in Berlin, or the Congress in DC, the discourse of those we elect to represent us can be at times uplifting or embarrassing. And yet democracies are based on the right of freedom of expression for all citizens. Along with that right goes the responsibility to tolerate what might appear to some as nonsense and/or insult.
What will unfold in the coming weeks in the U.S. is a full scale war of words across the Democratic-Republican trenches, the likes of which we have seen before. However, this year’s contest may escalate to new levels with the increasing amount of fiscal and technological weapons available to both sides. Yet, when one takes a closer look, a growing set of sub-trenches become visible within the ranks of the two parties in battle. Republicans and Democrats alike are anything but a uniformed group of soldiers marching in the same direction to a similar beat. The cleavages in the Republican Party over its campaign platform or the embarrassing case of Todd Akin are illustrations of the mixed bag of its membership. The same can be said of the Democrats. Yet every four years the two sides need to organize themselves to get their candidate elected with 270 electoral votes. What unites them despite the internal differences is that goal – even if it is only for that moment. After that is either achieved or failed, the internal battles resume.
The lucky elected winners of these elections are then challenged to lead their troops, often inebriated with the afterglow of victory, and also to seek common ground with the losing side. President Obama faced that challenge after his election in 2008, and was severely hindered in his ability to achieve both objectives. That problem – otherwise known as gridlock in Washington – will not change much regardless of who wins the presidential election in November, and regardless of the outcome of the Congressional elections.