Replacing Partisan Fear and Mistrust With Understanding and Unity


By Pete Souza (Executive Office of the President of the United States) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

George Washington famously warned against the dangers of partisanship in the U.S. in his farewell address way back in 1796:

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.”

It didn’t take long for our young country to ignore his forewarning. In 1800, the presidential election came down to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Once close friends, the sitting president and vice president engaged in a campaign against one another that was just as vicious as this year’s race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Don’t believe me? Consider some of the newspaper articles directed at President Adams. In them he was called a “repulsive pedant” and a “gross hypocrite”. It was said that “in his private life [he was] one of the most egregious fools upon the continent.” Finally, he was described- in language that surely was controversial even then- as a “hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”

All of these attacks were penned by the same journalist, James Callender. Callender, with Jefferson’s approval and financial support, was responsible for leading the smear campaign against Adams. He was eventually jailed for his writing under the Sedition Act. The bill, signed into law by Adams in 1798, declared false criticism of the federal government illegal.

Jefferson would go on to win the presidency, but he endured his fair share of attacks along the way, too. Critics accused him of swindling clients early on in his career as a lawyer, labeled him a coward for fleeing from the British as governor of Virginia during the Revolutionary War and claimed that if the “godless” Jefferson were elected, “family Bibles would have to be hidden away for safekeeping.”

Partisanship has seen peaks and valleys since the Adams-Jefferson showdown, but the last quarter-century has seen the country become more and more divided once again. Many feel that this election was different from others in recent years. If the protests around the country and the continued tension on social media is any measure, political wounds are taking a little bit longer to heal this time around. Differences are becoming harder to overcome.

Such were the findings in a Pew Research study published in June. There were a few particularly upsetting highlights that caught my attention. Over half of all Americans associated with a political party (49% of Republicans and 55% of Democrats) are afraid of the other side. An astounding 70% of Democrats consider Republicans more closed-minded, while Republicans tend to characterize Democrats as lazy and immoral. When asked about making compromises across the aisle, 58% of Republicans and 62% of Democrats think that their side should get more out of the deal.

The pervading negativity on both sides was perhaps the most distressing finding of all. More Republicans (68%) identify with their party because they believe Democratic policies are harmful to the country, instead of identifying with their party because they believe Republican policies. Simply put, most Republicans are Republicans not because they think their policies are better, but because they think Democratic policies are worse. 62% of Democrats say the same about their own affiliation. Independents, meanwhile, are far more likely to lean to one side or the other based on negative factors rather than positive factors.

We have to grow out of this negativity and stop fearing people who think differently than we do. It has become increasingly popular to criticize gridlock and incompetency in Washington for all of our political problems. But how can we expect our elected leaders to govern with understanding and compromise when we don’t practice the same virtues with our friends and family? Change needs to start with the electorate.

Since election day, I have had the privilege of speaking with a number of individuals who voted differently than me. I’ll admit that some of those discussions have gone better than others. Overall, however, I have found that a genuine desire to understand one another is a great recipe for dissolving fear and distrust. Conversations seeped in accusations and anger are destined to fail from the start.

I recognize that many Americans across the political spectrum are feeling hurt and misunderstood. I don’t want to discredit anybody’s concerns. Still, I am convinced that the best way forward, the only way to finally heed the sage advice of our first president, is to focus on what we have in common, to work together and to accept differing world views as part of what makes this country great.

[email protected]