While campaigning last weekend in western Pennsylvania for my good friend and recent GW grad Mark Harris in his bid for state representative, I passed two middle-school girls playing basketball in a suburban driveway. “Democrats rule!” shouted one, challenging my Mark Harris T-shirt. “Nuh-uh, they’re losers!” retorted her friend. While this sophomoric exchange understandably took place between two pre-teens, it could have just as easily taken place between two GW sophomores – or two senatorial candidates.
In the aftermath of last Tuesday’s election, it would be easy for Republicans to stew over their loss and plot revenge, and it would be just as easy for Democrats to gleefully bask in their win and dance on the graves of a few Republicans. But it’s important that all students who invested themselves in getting out the vote and spewing talking points for the past few months now take a step back from partisan politics.
Our school’s namesake rightfully warned in his farewell address about the “baneful effects of the spirit of party,” noting that such a spirit “agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, [and] foments occasionally riot and insurrection.” Washington realistically understood that this spirit “unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind.” But he still admonished citizens about the pitfalls of political parties and attempted to chasten their potential to tear at the fabric of our nation.
Washington’s words could not be more true or necessary today. Blind partisanship makes us inclined to assume the worst about our opponents’ motivations and intentions. This is abundantly clear from the perspective of conservatives living in a bastion of blue-staters like at GW. It seems to be common knowledge around here that if you support welfare reform, you hate the poor; if you oppose affirmative action, you’re a racist; if you’re against abortion, you’re a misogynist, or if you’re against gay marriage, you’re a bigot. Recently, some on the right, like Ann Coulter, have fought back with equal absurdities, essentially saying that if you oppose the war, you hate America. Clearly, it’s possible for thoughtful people of good faith to disagree on issues without hating anybody.
Partisanship also makes us inclined to look past the failures of those within our own ranks. As a conservative, it’s disheartening for me to see Republican compatriots defend President Bush’s abandonment of certain conservative principles. Conservative stalwart former Rep. Pat Toomey recently wrote: “From the last farm bill to the prescription drug entitlement to McCain-Feingold to runaway spending, Republicans in Washington stopped being the party of limited government some time ago.”
Yet, George Washington’s admonition against partisanship ought not lead us to conclude that there need to be more “moderates” in political life or less confrontation on divisive issues. Those politicians who cast themselves as moderates are often political squishes with no real principles to defend in the first place, voting whatever way they need to get reelected. Many moderates indulge themselves in the moral vanity of thinking that those who differ from them are extremists. No, what we need isn’t more moderates, but a serious vigorous debate about the principles that divide us.
Most importantly for students, partisanship can lead us to forget what the purpose of attending college is all about in the first place. Politically inclined students could easily consume their four years with a full plate of electioneering, political activism and internships. But in the end, pursuing partisan politics and career preparation at the expense of intellectual inquiry and a true education is unfulfilling.
Yeah, we all want to save the world, but college is perhaps the last time that we’re afforded the opportunity to really grapple with the big questions of life and have the time to read the great works of brilliant minds to aid us in our quest for true knowledge. If students walk out of this school concerned with little more than knowing how to read political tea leaves, then progressives will have no idea of what progress means, and conservatives will have no idea of what is worth conserving.
-The writer, a senior majoring in international affairs and history, is a Hatchet columnist.