Two-hundred twenty years ago, in 1796, George Washington began the tradition of a Presidential Farewell Address with a letter that was first published in the American Daily Advertiser. Since that time, 9 others of our 44 Presidents have given such an address, becoming more common in the modern era with every leader since Jimmy Carter delivering one. Washington had originally begun crafting his at the end of his first presidential term when he initially believed he’d be retiring. The rising tension between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson led to him seeking a second term and fed some of the themes addressed in his letter, primarily the corrosive force of political parties on a democracy. Much like Eisenhower’s warnings about the military-industrial complex, Washington’s Farewell Address is perhaps most famous for formally introducing the country’s non-interventionist stance which was then expanded in the Monroe Doctrine and lasted until the beginning of the 20th century. While not a formal presidential obligation like the State of the Union, the Farewell Address is an opportunity for our outgoing leader to express his final, usually grateful (I’m looking at you, Andrew Johnson) thoughts on the condition of our Nation, “offered with the more freedom,” says Washington, “as you can only see in them the disinterested warnings of a parting friend, who can possibly have no personal motive to bias his counsel.”
Last night, President Obama drew strongly from President Washington, both in word and intention. For his part, as mentioned above, Washington strongly warned against entangling ourselves in the affairs of other nations, avoiding all permanent alliances. That position changed dramatically as the world shifted in the 1900’s, with the World Wars and other forces of globalization making it near impossible to deny the inter-connected effects of international politics. This doesn’t make Washington’s stance obsolete, however, for even in our smaller, more global world the threats of alliances or antipathies based solely on standing agreements and not on principle are as relevant as ever.
“Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another,” he wisely said, “cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other.”
In addressing the dangers of political parties, Washington’s point seems distinctly relevant to our current state saying,
“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. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism.”
Despite his best efforts, political parties began their influence on American politics as soon as Washington was out of office, as Hamilton’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Republicans battled for control over issues that we continue to debate even today (strict vs loose constructionism, for example, though debated today with less eloquence, arguably). In our modern political environment, those parties have become large, amorphous alliances that accurately represent the views of increasingly fewer everyday Americans and furthers the “great sorting” that Pres. Obama spoke about, continuously pushing ourselves further away from one another under some justification of our correctness.
While the causes of such a partisan chasm should be the subject of their own article, there is immense beauty in the timelessness that allows these words to reach through 200+ years with wisdom for our own age. It helps to remind us that these issues are not new, they are as old as our democracy itself, and that we have overcome them before and can again. In this we are reminded that democracy is a growing, adapting form of government, allowing for and responsive to the changes of we are as people (and a People).
Embodying the spirit of our first President, last night our 44th leader laid out what he sees as five present threats to our democracy. Though certainly sharpened and detailed in the lens of current events, the principles are equally as timeless as Washington’s, concepts and actions which threaten the greater ideals upon which democracy is built.
Nearly all of the threats outlined by President Obama involve looking not at external dangers, but at those within ourselves that can cause very real damage to the fragile fabric of democracy. These dangers focus not on our officials or policy, but on us as citizens, “the most important office in a democracy”. And perhaps most importantly, these threats are bipartisan and readily familiar over the last decade.
There were many beautiful moments in the President’s speech last night. Telling Joe Biden that he was the best staff decision he made and that he “gained a brother in the bargain” was golden. His gratitude to his wife was touching, the maligning of whom I will never in my life understand. Michelle Obama is a brilliant, Harvard and Princeton educated, elegant, diligent, cheerful wife and mother who dedicated her time in the White House to childhood obesity and yet even today I get memes from we’re-not-racist Trump supporters that compare our First Lady to a gorilla. Shameful. (See Threat to Democracy #2, a false “post-racism” society)
But to me the most beautiful moment of our President’s speech was in elucidating the third threat to our democracy, the same threat warned by President Washington and for the same reasons. Here he hit a note of special eloquence derived from his passion and deep-seeded beliefs. In speaking about race relations he quoted from To Kill a Mockingbird as Atticus Finch talks about seeing from another’s perspective, an exercise engaged by far too few of us. It held a special poignancy as Obama went on to speak about echo chambers, the bubbles we construct that reinforce only our held beliefs.
“In the rise of naked partisanship and increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste, all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable.”
This great sorting, tangible and visible in so much of our discourse, is, in fact, neither natural or inevitable. I am struck on a daily basis, equally from both political right and left by articles and posts that are unverified, unresearched, and even sometimes unread. Democracy is not a machine clanging away in the Maryland hillside, it requires our participation, we give it its power. When we willfully engage in such a low level of discourse, allowing ourselves to be duped by misleading information, arguing positions out of a false partisan identity rather than based on principles and facts, when ridicule becomes our first gear rather than resolution, we are not fulfilling our obligation to our great and beautiful Nation. “It’s not just misleading, this selective sorting of facts,” says our President, “it’s self-defeating”.
And while Obama’s points as they relate to climate change and the “fight against authoritarianism and nationalist aggression” may be viewed as a partisan attack of Trump and his incoming administration, they shouldn’t be. The “essential spirit of innovation and practical problem solving” that underpins our democracy, an order “built on principles, the rule of law, human rights, freedom of religion and speech and assembly and an independent press” – these should be bipartisan and universal, democratic ideals that should form a baseline for our disagreement and debate. And yet in too many of our conversations and proposed political policy the suspension of one or multiple of these concepts becomes accepted in favor of what is seen as a higher priority of the moment.
Regardless of demography, geography, or party affiliation, we must always be moving forward, always aiming to improve and be a better democracy, always striving to better represent the smallest, weakest, least fortunate among us. These are not platitudes, they are important, core ideals that for many folks fall into a misaligned concept of “SJW’s” on crusades to get more free stuff, fragile and weak because of a focus on the needs and desires of the many segments of our diverse American population. I have always believed that that is where my President’s heart and mind have ever remained, progressing and improving the lives of my fellow citizens. It is an ideal advocated by our Founding Fathers in no scarcity of occasion, it is the cornerstone principle of Christianity’s New Testament, it is enshrined in the colossal statue of Libertas that adorns our eastern coast. Though particular moments last night may have had more the tenor of a campaign rally or State of the Union speech, President Obama’s Farewell Address put the focus not on particular policies or actors but on tenets of democracy that we as citizens are responsible for protecting, connecting the 2017 version of our country to the one President Washington gazed upon as he prepared to leave office more than 200 years ago. Speaking on principles that have always been close to his heart, our 44th President reminded us of the important job we have going forward and of dangers that are no spectres of past evil but real, present, tangible threats to our modern democracy.
Our basic “rights, while self-evident, have never been self-executing… All of this depends on our participation; on each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship.”
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