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Guest Commentary

Iowa GOP caucus ignores warnings of the founding fathers


With the praise lavished upon the Iowa caucuses as grassroots democracy and the attention that supposedly makes Iowa “the center of the political universe,” perhaps it is worth hearing from a few who would see the Feb. 1, 2016, caucuses as counter to the American dream.

No, they are not the sore losers in previous years. Nor are they those who gripe about Iowa being the first in the nation to have a say as to who will hold “the most important office of government in the history of the world” — as Harry Truman characterized the presidency.

They are, however, people with credentials to assess the 2016 caucus, particularly the GOP version. They include George Washington, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and America’s poet and prophet, Walt Whitman.

All warned about the “spirit of party” and the fear “factions” would put ideological concerns above the “common good,” sacrificing what is best for the nation to serve the agendas of the few.

Welcome to Iowa and the 2016 GOP caucus campaign, where open minds and compromise are verboten — just like in Congress these days.

Consider, however, George Washington in his 1796 farewell address: “Let me warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party…”

His warning: “The domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissention, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities is itself a frightful despotism… It agitates the Community with ill-founded Jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another.”

Ill-founded jealousies? False alarms? Animosity? Sounds like Washington was commenting on GOP candidate debates.

James Madison, in the Federalist Papers, 1787, defined factions as “a number of citizens adverse to the rights of other citizens or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community…A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points…have, in turn, divided mankind into parties inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for their common good…”

Vex? Oppress? Might add fear mongering to the list.

Benjamin Franklin at the 1787 Constitutional convention feared, “We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall be become a reproach and a bye word down to future age(s). And what is worse, mankind may hereafter this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human Wisdom, and leave it to chance, war, and conquest.”

Government by chance, war and conquest?  So much for “government of the people, by the people and for the people.”

Walt Whitman in Democratic Vistas (1871) encouraged young Americans to “enter into politics,” but cautioned against “these half-brain’d nominees, the many ignorant ballots and many elected failures and blatherers…. For America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without; for I see clearly that the combined foreign world could not beat her down But these savage, wolfish parties alarm me. Owning no law but their own will, more and more combative, less and less tolerant of the idea of ensemble and of equal brotherhood.”

One wish is that the 2016 caucus will not only weed out candidates, but also weed out the worst aspects of spirit of party and factions that Washington and Madison worried about and that dominate caucus rhetoric.

It’s not about civility, as the conventional wisdom would have it — even duels to the death have civil ritual. It’s about finding a common ground to best serve our nation, appealing to the highest common denominator.  Not the lowest. CV

Herb Strentz is a retired administrator and professor in the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication and writes occasional columns for Cityview.

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