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Amash, Washington and the partisan two-party threat

Written By | Jul 5, 2019
Justin Amash

Justin Amash

WASHINGTON: U.S. Representative Justin Amash is no longer a Republican. In a July 4 Washington Post op-ed he wrote, “Today, I am declaring my independence and leaving the Republican Party.”

President Donald Trump acknowledged Amash’s departure with a typically disparaging tweet. He called Amash “one of the dumbest & most disloyal men in Congress … A total loser!” 

The threat of party politics

Amash observes in his op-ed,

“I’ve become disenchanted with party politics and frightened by what I see from it. The two-party system has evolved into an existential threat to American principles and institutions.” He pulled support from George Washington’s farewell address on the danger of political parties and partisanship. The increasing bitterness of partisan politics makes that address, which sounds almost prophetic, increasingly relevant.”

According to Washington:

I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.

This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

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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 serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.

The threat of political monopoly

Amash sees the two-party system as an “existential threat to American principles and institutions.” Like Washington, he sees partisanship as an inherent danger. It leads, he believes, from a system in which policies and outcomes are decided by thoughtful debate, towards a system in which political leaders pre-determine outcomes.

But his own history suggests a problem with this view.

Amash was elected to Congress in 2010.

That was the year that saw the Tea Party movement sweep into power, bringing men and women like Amash with it. He was a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of representatives that many Democrats saw as particularly uncompromising and partisan.

He wouldn’t see it that way. Amash didn’t help build the Freedom Caucus as a tool of Republican Party politics. Its members often stood in opposition to GOP leadership to “focus on cutting government spending and opening up congressional procedure” (CNN).

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From Amash’s perspective, this wasn’t partisan; it was principled.

Regardless, it helped fuel the partisan divide. It was part of the end of “consensus politics”, and to many conservatives, that wasn’t a bad thing. After all, didn’t the consensus promote business as usual, an ever-expanding federal government, and ever-diminishing liberties?

Didn’t Amash and others in his congressional class go to Washington to break up a political monopoly?

Isn’t bipartisanship just monopoly by another name?

It is. If the two major parties agree about goals and policies, then the country marches quickly in that direction. Disagreements between the parties provide genuine alternatives to voters, who often complain that Democrats and Republicans are the same. It was the belief that there was no real difference between the parties that led many liberal voters to vote for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in 2000 rather than for Al Gore.

Not a huge number, but probably enough to tip a few critical electoral votes to George W. Bush.

Voters say they want real choices. Distinct and battling political parties should give them what they want, while also stopping a headlong rush into policies favored by the party in power.

Washington mentioned this possibility in his farewell address:

There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast, patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party.

Battling parties can keep power from accumulating in government. People who praise bipartisanship look back with nostalgia at the days when Republicans were just like today’s Democrats and everyone was “reasonable”. But “reasonable” in this context often means, “they did what I think they should have.”

What if you don’t agree? What if you aren’t content to be the hyphen between Tweedledee and Tweedledum?

Good partisanship is not an oxymoron

Washington acknowledged the potential value of parties and partisanship. But he wasn’t convinced. And neither is Amash.

Justin Amash is, by many accounts, an unusually principled man. Holding to principle, he says he’s seen the Freedom Caucus move away from him, not the other way around. And that goes even more emphatically for the GOP.

The partisanship he decries is emphatically not the disagreement of principled legislators on the basis of basic principles. It is not one side arguing passionately for greater liberty while the other side argues for greater equality, each side convinced that it is fundamentally right. If that were the partisanship paralyzing Washington, it would be hard to find fault with it. Indeed, it would be a gratifying display of republican government done right.

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But that isn’t the partisanship we see today.

What we see is the partisan battle for power, not a contest of principles. Principles are for soundbites. They’re checklists politicians tick off as they visit different constituencies. If you visit a women’s gathering, your principles are bodily autonomy, paid parental leave, free birth control and more funding for Planned Parenthood. On the other hand, if you visit an NRA meeting, your principles are the Second Amendment, no background checks, high-capacity magazines and open carry.

None of those things are principles. They’re conclusions. The application of principles might get you there, but knowing that you support them doesn’t tell us why.

Is it principled to jump political ships?

The question of whether Amash is a principled politician is different from the question of whether you agree with him. Or even of whether you like him.

There is nothing principled about following your party leaders. Principle comes into the discussion when we ask, “why do you follow them?” Is it for power? For position? Perhaps for profit? Or is it because you believe in what they say?

Not knowing Amash well, it’s impossible to say what he really believes. We can draw some decent inferences, however, by looking at his record, and by determining whether he says the same things when they’re popular and when they’re not.

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We can ask whether he explains his positions and supports them, or whether he simply spouts items on the checklist. And we can do the same for any politician.

Whether you are principled in your politics depends on whether you choose your party on the basis of your principles, or choose your positions on the basis of your party. If it’s the former, you stand firm on your ground and don’t chase after your party. The latter means that you change your positions when the party tells you to; the Party is always right.

Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve …

Sometimes principle compels a person to change parties, and sometimes it compels him to stay. We live in a time of unhealthy partisanship when changing parties is considered remarkable, or a sign of bad character. The Republican and Democratic Parties are both full of consistent hobgoblins, men and women who consistently check particular boxes. They’re also full of consistent careerists and climbers who will check or uncheck boxes to match the diktats of Party leaders.

What they aren’t full of is men and women who don’t just tell us whether taxes should rise or we should make healthcare single-payer, but who can articulate clear moral, economic and political reasons for doing those things. They aren’t full of leaders, or of people willing to be mocked by Party, president or press for standing firm on what they believe.

That’s something to ponder as the presidential race heats up, and as we ask what we, our representatives, and our country stand for.

Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics. He teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years doing economic development work in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He has also worked in Latin America, the former USSR and the Balkans as an educator, teaching courses in economics and law at universities in Ukraine and at finance ministries throughout the region. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.