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Preserving Core Institutions in an Age of Self-Interested Utilitarianism

“In contemplating the causes which may disturb our Union, it occurs as matter of serious concern that any ground should have been furnished for characterizing parties by geographical discriminations, Northern and Southern, Atlantic and Western…They tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection”. George Washington, Farewell Address.

The political world once again claims the headlines and excites the imagination of optimists and pessimists alike. The well-earned contempt directed at national office holders has provided a promising opportunity for candidates new to the process. As their lives have not been devoted to “the system”, the pundits find them curious, maladroit and probably incompetent. Why should anyone take seriously one of the most successful businessmen of the 20th century or a distinguished neurosurgeon when there are “serious” contenders drawn from the ranks of a massive and largely ineffective bureaucracy?

Moreover, the leadership of both parties is scarcely neutral, insisting that the people must yield to the judgment of professionals. But, apart from serving the interests of the party, just what “profession” grounds the claim? What achievements, serving the broad and significant interests of the whole nation, earn these people the standing of “leaders”? President Washington—patently superior to all who came after him—worried about foreign entanglements and domestic factions. He was an extraordinary man, but genius was not necessary to see even in the earliest days of the new nation that loyalties were forming around the very factions that would spawn parties. Concern in this matter arises not from the mere organization of objectives under the flag of a party, but from the tendency to frame objectives on the basis of party loyalty.

There is all the difference between two parties equally devoted to our national interest (but endorsing different methods for realizing the objective) and two parties devoted to gaining power that ultimately serves their supporters at the expense of their opponents. What we have is the latter, and plausible curatives seem very far down the road. Perhaps the most vulgar and even dangerous expression of party loyalties surrounds the contentious issue of immigration. There are business interests best served by cheap labor; there are the interests of the Democrat party in enlarging the size of groups likely to vote “left”.

If these two factions agree on anything it is that only a clear or a veiled “racism” impels opposition to the admission of immigrants. How, then, to understand Teddy Roosevelt? “Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn't an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag... We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language... and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people .” In 1905, the same Teddy Roosevelt, addressing the Republican Club in New York City, considered the race issue in terms of North and South. He said this: “The attitude of the North toward the negro is far from what it should be, and there is need that the North also should act in good faith upon the principle of giving to each man what is justly due him, of treating him on his worth as a man, granting him no special favors, but denying him no proper opportunity for labor and the reward of labor”.

Yes, Theodore Roosevelt was addressing members of a party, but was alerting them to issues that might cause division in the nation. Indeed, we have room for but one flag—the one that Americans of both genders, all races and every ethnic group have died for. In my estimation, this perspective is more difficult to adopt and refine within the narrowing context of party-politics. So, as election day becomes more clearly visible, I would hope we might reshape that famous passage from John Kennedy’s inaugural: Ask not what the country can do for my party, but what my party WILL do for all who live as Americans, under one flag.