Partisanship, political fighting and public rancor have always fueled the ideas that matter—the revolutionary advances that elevate man’s station in life. Throughout history, hotly-contested ideas are a sign that people are thinking. We are in such times. Times which, as Thomas Paine noted, “Try men’s souls.” Yet partisanship is condemned each day as indecent. Many incumbents speak of bipartisanship, not as a vice to protect the status quo, but as if it’s a virtue. Last year our Secretary of State declared, “Ideology is so yesterday.”
She was right—ideology is so yesterday, it harkens back to an age when things worked. The virtue of putting ideas ahead of convention, the human frailty of “getting along,” is the primary lesson of The Enlightenment.
The Founders of this country were not the delicate geniuses that are too often committed to oil paintings and tales of unearthly virtues. They had meat on their bones. Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton were so divided over the country’s first Central Bank—the original “too big to fail” moment—that they engaged in a skirmish that today would have drawn indictments from the Justice Department. While serving as Secretary of State, Jefferson hired a writer solely to provide the finances needed to publish invective newspapers and pamphlets against Hamilton’s ideas. Pamphlets—the 18th century equivalent of a blog—were less expensive to produce than books and thus reached a wider audience. Their hatred for each other would continue until the day Hamilton died—an event brought on by his falling out with another Founder, Aaron Burr, who left Hamilton for dead on the shores of the Hudson River in their now famous duel.
Thomas Paine, the popular writer whose pamphlets inspired the American Revolution, fought with so many of his friends that by the end of his life, he had none. America emerged from under the quill tip of Thomas Paine, and yet his funeral was attended by only six people. His fellow Revolutionary John Adams called him, “a mongrel between pig and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf.”
The Founders, by today’s delicate standards, were nuts.
But the better part of eccentricity is genius, and the Founders had genius in droves. More importantly, they considered “just getting along” a vice. It was seen as shirking one’s responsibility to the public. Today, to hear our politicians speak of “getting beyond politics” makes the stomach turn. It is like hearing a dentist ask for a world without teeth. It compels one to say “grow up” and “find another line of work.” We don’t want you to mindlessly work together, that ephemeral shrug is precisely what has left us with our present lot. We also don’t need the theatrics of debates in which the candidates gush over how much they like each other as people, but merely disagree with each other’s ideas, as if apologizing for the inconvenience of dissent. Politics is, as Teddy Roosevelt would have said, the thing.
We are in an age in which to suggest cutting spending is considered naïve. There is no greater act of blasphemy in Washington. It is met with a pitiful look and yet cutting Federal spending remains the only plausible solution. There is no more room for taxation and our credit rating is already on life support. The younger generation not only continues to pay into Social Security, but also must funnel money into 401k plans to pay for their own retirement—ostensibly being taxed twice for the same moment in life. This is the consequence of generations of irresponsibility; the result of politics as a photo op. Politicians who look upon this age and cry for bipartisanship, a replacement for thinking, are asking for nothing more than a career uncontested—a quiet perpetuation of the status quo. What they are really asking for, whether or not they have the sense to acknowledge it, is fascism.
Partisanship, in an age such as ours, is a good thing.
These may be times to “try men’s souls,” but they are also exciting ones since only times like these hold as much promise as they do pain. Not since the explosion of ideas at the tail end of The Enlightenment—with the involved masses reading pamphlets, giving street speeches and flooding coffee houses with debate—has there been so much civic activity in the nation. The people are participating. This stands in opposition to the claim, with a finger often pointed to the likes of reality television, that people are getting “dumber” and “more apathetic.” People have always sought the lowliest amusements. At the height of The Enlightenment, amusements included throwing rotten vegetables at debtors, taking your children to witness a public hanging and following dinner with a trip to the brothel. Tenuous moments in history cultivate an appetite for extremes. And civilizations that look to the bottom for entertainment often, without irony, reserve the heights of life for nation building.
We have returned to such times. The Internet is playing a large part—casting us into a future that looks welcomingly similar to where we began.
Now we need the emerging leaders, in the spirit of the Founders, to mirror this moment.
Eben Carle served in the White House as an Associate Director on the Homeland Security Council from 2008-2009. He received a master’s degree in American studies from Columbia University and is currently writing his first novel.