George Washington, the very first President of the United States, advised against the formation of political parties.
His exact quote was this: “However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
It would seem this is exactly what is happening in the United States right now as both major political parties become more and more dysfunctional. Government shut downs are increasingly becoming the norm and each party is retreating further and further into their own camps. The result is gridlock where nothing can actually get done.
How did it come to this? You can blame the information age and Internet in particular. Once upon a time you only had three or four TV channels. Everyone got their information from the same place for the most part. Thus, there was generally more “agreement” among people about morals, values, culture, and the like. This led to the average person being relatively moderate politically and only leaning slightly to the right or left.
Over time, the competitive nature of running for office forced politicians to find new ways to differentiate themselves from their opponents. Mudslinging is nothing new and it was going on since the birth of politics. However, like all things, it had to evolve over time to have the same impact. Eventually, everyone gets wise to the same game. Thus, politicians have learned to better differentiate themselves to gain more attention and votes. A big part of this differentiation is proposing extreme, polarizing solutions that gain strong support from one side and strong rejection from the other side.
Ultimately, staking out an extreme position that gets strong public support forces the other side to either move more to the center to gain broader appeal or take an equally extreme and polarizing position to gain stronger base support.
One major factor that drives the effectiveness of political “shock value” is the tendency people have to make emotional decisions. Its been proven that memory is closely tied to emotions. If a politician sticks to language everyone has heard a million times before, they won’t generate any special attention or emotional reactions.
In the age of social media “likes” and 24/7 news, bland information gets lost in the shuffle. Thus, to gain voter support and recognition, politicians are forced to stake out increasingly extreme positions. While this is bad for bipartisanship, it serves the individual politician very well as they can take full advantage of the media attention they get.
Furthermore, if the wacky ideas a politician proposes never becomes law, they don’t have to worry about how it might backfire if it did. They can continue using the same wacky idea to get media attention and votes from supporters. When their idea gets shot down, they can demonize the other side by slinging mud. In politics, you don’t get blood on your hands when your ideas never become law. But you do get remembered by your supporters.
With more and more politicians using this approach, bipartisanship becomes more and more difficult. Both political parties like to raise money from various sources and they need to keep these sources happy to keep getting paid. Thus, trying to work with the other side to actually get things done runs in conflict with their own best interests. They risk aggressive attack from both the media and their own supporters.
This is the reality George Washington predicted and the reason he believed the formation of political parties was not wise.