My Fellow Citizens,
The news was exhausting before any of us had heard of the whistleblower's complaint. Or the text messages. All political news seems to lead back to the idea that the Senate will never remove President Trump from office.
The smartest podcasts, most detailed analyses, and careful insight from people with long careers in government all bounce from one revelation to the next. Tomorrow, we'll wake up and do it all again.
This downward spiral of political discussion led journalist John Dickerson to insert a bit of advice from Haley Barbour into this week's Political Gabfest. He interrupted the long list of details to remind us all, "the most important thing is to keep the main thing the main thing."
I shook my head emphatically while sitting in rush hour traffic. Then I realized I still felt completely lost. What's the main thing again?
A recent Vox video features Ezra Klein offering his take on the main thing and how polarization seems to have the last word. It takes political power to make the main thing the main thing.
Klein shows how today's partisanship looks more like the pessimistic vision of parties, partialities, and animosities in Federalist No. 65. The optimistic vision of a dignified tribunal and more independent Senate seems impossible. We do not have access to the Senate that Alexander Hamilton describes in his essay on the power to impeach.
It sounds like this is another situation where no one is looking for answers. Then Klein posed a new take on a familiar question:
What is it that impeachment CAN do?
The answer Klein presents has several parts. Impeachment can serve to sanction the president, provide important information to voters, put foreign countries on notice, and leave a record for the future.
That last part, a record for the future, reminded me of something I read in the very first pages of Sheldon Wolin's book Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought. Wolin taught at Princeton University as a Professor of Politics Emeritus and worked as a political theorist for fifty years.
In introducing the book originally published in 1960, he wrote:
"My hope is that this volume, if it does not give pause to those who are eager to jettison what remains of the tradition of political philosophy, may at least succeed in making clear what it is we shall have discarded."
What commitments from yesterday become untenable when we accept the arguments we're making today? Whatever position someone takes on President Trump's conversation with the new president of Ukraine, we need to also speak deliberately about what it means to make room for that behavior.
Partisanship intermingled with governing has long been considered a dangerous proposition. We have a framework for talking about that danger too.
In George Washington's Farewell Address (1796), he acknowledged that partisanship is indeed part of our nature. He observed it appears in different forms in all types of government. In popular government like ours, Washington warned partisanship, "is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy." He then described the "permanent despotism" parties unleash.
Governing ourselves with a politics that accepts no limits on partisanship serves to* :
- Distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration
- Agitate the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms
- Kindle animosity of one part against another, and foments occasionally riot and insurrection
- Open the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions
*These are Washington's words organized for today's hyper-efficient reader
Supporting your party is easy. Making affirmative statements that this is the kind of politics you want for the future might present a challenge. Our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, modeled this for us too. He didn't just say the Southerners who wanted to secede were wrong. He demonstrated that the principles they promoted were fatal.
In an address to a special session of Congress on July 1861, President Lincoln explained that the arguments of the seceders relied on a principle of "disintegration, and upon which no government can possibly endure."
The details will keep coming at us. The partisan positioning will continue to swirl around each story. It's up to us to keep the principles at work at the center of it all.
The principles, especially the ones we can share, are the main thing.
Let's not give up on the main thing,