George Washington’s farewell address spends significant time on the dangers of political parties. I find this document similar to a postmortem, assessing the past with recommendations for the future. In my very short time in politics I’ve seen enough to validate the prescience of his warning.
In one paragraph, he outlines the danger of parties in the past, and the perilous result of their perpetuation into the future:
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. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.
Parties distract and disinform, and open the country up to external threats:
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.
And it will likely not end well for the country:
However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.
Full letter here.
Hat tip to the television show West Wing, Season 2 Episode 11 for mentioning this.