Johnson used to love meeting with freshman members of Congress, and after taking office we Democrats who had been elected that same year had every expectation that he would allow us to bask at the expense of our Republican colleagues. He didn’t. “I’m an American first,” he told us. “And I’m a Democrat second.”
It was a bracing affirmation that the good of the country comes first, even if it runs counter to the interests of one’s political party. I can’t help thinking of it today, in an era when deep, seemingly unbridgeable differences divide Democrats and Republicans, and when these divisions are being stoked by the current presidential campaign.
It has been apparent almost since the beginning that our nation’s welfare rides on how well political leaders balance the needs of the country against their partisan goals. In 1796, preparing to step down from the presidency, George Washington devoted much of his Farewell Address to this question and to the destructiveness of what he called “the fury of party spirit.”
Many national leaders since have likewise signaled a bedrock belief in the importance of working together to bridge differences because the nation’s welfare demanded it.
Now, we’re not going to abolish parties, and we shouldn’t. They help us organize our political choices, define and advocate issues, and make sense of elections.
But if we’re not careful, they can be carried to such an extreme that they divide government, when what we need is unity of government. We need it in foreign affairs, where the more united we are as a nation, the stronger we are. And we need it in domestic policy, where excessive partisanship agitates the people, creates animosities among them, leads to distrust within Congress, and short-circuits our ability to resolve the problems that press against our future. If you doubt any of this, just look around.
Our differences are important; they are part of who we are as a nation. But if we want to overcome our challenges and preserve our greatness, unity is indispensable. The great work of our democracy, as it has been for over 200 years, is learning how to reconcile the two.
Lee H. Hamilton, a 1952 graduate of DePauw University, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years and co-chaired the 9/11 Commission and Iraq Study Group. He is the director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University.