If you were to acquire political information only from former and current officials of the Obama administration, you would think the Republican party is borderline seditious. President Obama himself regularly castigates Republican motives as un-American. Last week, in a typical tweet aimed at Republican presidential candidates, he said, “Slamming the door in the face of refugees would betray our deepest values. That’s not who we are.”
Never one to be one-upped, the graceless Hillary Clinton recently listed as her enemies “the NRA, the health insurance companies, the drug companies, the Iranians . . . probably the Republicans.” Earlier this month she added, “We have to create more good-paying jobs, and there’s a bunch of things we could do, if the Republicans would just get out of the way.” This is more or less the argument advanced by the High Federalists when they passed the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. The opposition was an enemy of the public good, and therefore had to be squashed.
Clinton can’t outflank Bernie Sanders on ideological grounds, so she is appealing to Democratic voters by emphasizing partisan enmity. It is a smart maneuver when judged against her immediate self-interest, which is the only sort of calculus the Clintons typically make. Nevertheless, the rhetoric is worrisome. Have we gotten to the point in this country when the highest leaders in government think that half of America is basically un-American?
Make no mistake, politics has a long tradition of rough elbows, and Republicans have given as good as they are getting. Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan took to cataloguing the instances during the Bush administration when Republicans, often senior officials in the administration, indulged in overheated rhetoric about the patriotism and loyalty of Democratic opponents. So perhaps this is just the American political version of the eternal recurrence: Democrats do unto Republicans as Republicans do unto them.
But does it have to be this way? Should we not expect more from the presidential office? It is one thing for rhetoric like this to come from members of Congress, state and local party officials, or ideologues in the media. It is quite another for it to emanate from the executive branch, including from a former first lady and senator like Clinton, who is the party’s heir apparent. The president, after all, is the one officer in the government who may claim to speak for the whole nation. The office is also endowed with enormous power, which increasingly is quasi-legislative and can be exercised without checks and balances. Moreover, the pomp and circumstance that increasingly surround the office, while muted compared with what the Bourbon Kings enjoyed, has the effect of giving the president’s words special weight.
In other words, today’s executive branch is not the place for Manichean rhetoric—at least not in a nation that fancies itself a democratic republic.
Not every president has indulged in this low form of partisanship. Thomas Jefferson worked behind the scenes to destroy the Federalist party in the 1790s, employing legerdemain that has tarnished his reputation in the eyes of historians, but after his victory in 1800 he declared, “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” He then put those words into practice, pursuing a gracious policy towards his former opponents. The result was a quarter-century of national harmony, and an opportunity for the Union to cement itself. Sixty-four years later, Abraham Lincoln closed his second Inaugural Address with this graceful benediction:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
And this was near the end of a war that left hundreds of thousands of Americans dead, by the hands of their fellow citizens.
Is such high-mindedness no longer possible? In The Promise of Party in a Polarized Age, political scientist Russell Muirhead makes the case for partisanship, but of a better sort. Low partisanship, he argues, is a relentless focus on tactics, without regard to the bigger picture. High partisanship, on the other hand, “is about the broad goals that define a partisan conception of the common good.” This, he continues, “can be a salutary force, and perhaps there is no way to think deeply about the common good without becoming a partisan in the high sense.”