Election 2012 and the “Mischiefs of Party Spirit”
Every so often one’s reading of history collides directly with the experience of the present moment. I am currently reading volume two of Simon Schama‘s A History of Britain. Today (election day 2012 in the U.S.) I came across an essay by Richard Addisson. It was penned during the late 1600′s, a time of exhaustion from years of factional bitterness in politics. The language in the essay is wonderfully antique but the spirit cuts across the years like a searchlight.
“There cannot a greater judgment befall a country than such a dreadful spirit of division as rends a government into two distinct people, and makes them greater strangers and more averse to one another, than if they were actually two different nations. The effects of such a division are pernicious to the last degree, not only with regard to those advantages which they give the common enemy, but to those private evils which they produce in the heart of almost every particular person. This influence is very fatal both to men’s morals and their understandings; it sinks the virtue of a nation, and not only so, but destroys even common sense.”
I do not pretend that our politics today is more toxic than at any time in the past. One need only read a small bit of history to know that we have seen far worse… But to me it feels like the polarization of our political discourse diminishes each of us as we retell the tropes that belong to our party line – whether that be Republican or Democratic. For what I take away from Addison’s 17th century essay is this: The character of the discourse we have in love or in disagreement, in politics, business or family, defines the character of our person. That is to say, it is our choice to use divisive language and framing to discuss the issues we care about but in so doing we limit our own capacity for sound judgment, common sense and compassion. Worth remembering on this election day as we witness the transition from campaign 2012 to campaign 2016.
Addison’s full essay is titled, “Mishchiefs of Party Spirit” and is available here.