By Schuyler VanValkenburg and Samuel Ulmschneider
In 2017, Virginia has the potential to produce leadership and politics that can point the right direction for the nation again. Right from the beginning of our country’s history the Commonwealth was a place where statesmen, at their best, elevated our democratic deliberation and produced ideals and actions that would set the path forward for the United States. After two terms serving his nation as President, capping a long career in the military, politics, and civil society, George Washington penned a farewell address which was more widely read for five decades than the Declaration of Independence itself. His message laid out his aspirations and hopes, but also laid out warnings and advice for his nation. There was a great deal Washington left untouched in his address, especially the role of slavery in his own fortune and the nation’s future. His lack of attention to the immoral slave society which underlay his position and fortune, though, does not mean we should disregard his Farewell Address’ important ideas.
One of the things which Washington dwells on most extensively is the “preservation of the Union.” Though he partly meant it in more geographic terms, it also came to mean preserving mutual respect and shared national identity. For Washington, one of the greatest threats to unity was partisan spirit and the temptations is offered to undermine our institutions and respect for one another as citizens. He warned his contemporaries that it was incumbent upon them to provide a better example in politics and discourse. He wanted to prevent “the alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge.”
The “spirit of revenge,” what both Washington and his collaborator Madison called ‘factional’ behavior, seems to be the animating spirit of many national and Virginia politicians these days. Washington understood that there would always be forces of political ambition and dissent, and that they could even have “salutary purposes” when they reflected the desires of the people. However, the spirit of revenge Washington implored us to avoid is exemplified by Corey Stewart’s clinging to hateful rhetoric, and encouraging the worst groups in American politics today to rally to his flag and threaten other citizens of the Commonwealth. Other members of the state’s Republican party, like Delegate Bob Marshall and former candidate Ken Cuccinelli, also go beyond the bounds of normal partisanship and poison our dialogues with a desire to harm their opponents and vulnerable people in our communities, not just defeat them in elections. They’ve learned to do this from their national leaders.
Washington spent two paragraphs in his Farewell Address discussing his inadequacy to the demands of Presidency, and hoping that people might forgive his mistakes and look to his Address to learn lessons for the future. The GOP embodies the opposite spirit today from its top down. Donald Trump can’t stop crowing about his own virtues on Twitter, suggesting anyone who opposes him is a traitor who ought to be investigated by his Justice Department. The legacy of the Farewell Address, imploring us to avoid engaging in political reprisals against our opponents, be humble and careful about our own politics, and be skeptical of those who divide us, is being sorely tested by the contemporary GOP and those who embrace Trumpism.
Virginia politics can do again what Washington intended to do in his Farewell Address. In our 2017 elections, we have put forward candidates and agendas, discourse and ideas, which encourage a civil dialogue and rise above pure partisanship. Not only will we strive for a better tone and discourse, we’ll focus on policies that work to ensure that all Virginians have the opportunity to thrive, by solving real issues that impact all Virginians on a daily basis.
Importantly, we can also try to combat the spread the kind of simplified ideas and reckless rhetoric that threatens our common cause of American and Virginian citizenship. The Democrats in our state this year exemplify what Washington wanted us to be – whether it’s Ralph Northam’s service to his country and community, the determination to build up opportunity and education to all Virginians on the part of our delegate candidates, the care with which our Attorney General has defended the balance of powers in our state and national constitutions, and more. These values, unlike the GOP’s, are consistent with Washington’s message to the nation he was leaving in the hands of a new generation.
A large part of my decision to run for delegate this year is because of my love for this country’s constitutional history and respect for its ever-evolving notions of citizenship and political community. Washington’s worried advice to his nation about moderation in rhetoric is an important element of that. It’s time for us here in Virginia to live up to the best parts of the legacy created by our state in the early years of the nation. Our choices this year can show how to pursue pragmatic, empathetic, progressive politics that provide an alternative to the politics of resentment, revenge, and faction that are percolating down from Washington.