Now that the political conventions are finished (as of our dateline), Wisconsin stands as a battleground state in the national election. We will see many from both parties — at least virtually — visit here in the next nine weeks.
Political parties can be polarizing. When it comes to elections, it becomes very easy to vote based on party only — or on a particular platform issue of a party.
This is nothing new. Political factions have been a concern since our nation’s founding in 1776. Our founders were wary of, even completely opposed to, political parties. While there were no parties as we know them today in 18th-century Britain, there had been dangerous factional divisions there for centuries — such as between the Crown and Parliament (the English Civil Wars of the 17th century) or between supporters of various religions in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Our founders feared that our new nation could be torn apart by similar factions warring over ideologies or even over personalities. They wanted the governance of the nation shared equally and fairly between the three branches of government set up in the Constitution — not by parties.
For example, Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend in 1789: “If I could not go to heaven (except) with a party, I would not go there at all.”
John Adams wrote in 1780: “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader and concerting measures in opposition to each other.”
And George Washington was so opposed to political parties that he addressed the topic in his farewell to the nation in 1796: “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.”
It is difficult to contemplate our nation without political parties. Indeed, it would probably be difficult to elect a stable government without them — since we would have dozens of candidates running for office under their own “party” ideologies. Parties do lend structure to a plurality of voices and goals.
However, as Washington foresaw, there is a great danger in a system that runs with two major political parties. This is quite evident in this electoral cycle. Polarity has stalled a unified response to a national crisis. This is sad because we need to work together as a nation, on several fronts. Whether we are dealing with COVID-19, poverty, racism or our interactions with other nations, we need to be able to work together, to compromise in some areas in order to reach unified goals that bring good to the whole community.
This is what our bishops want us to remember as we prepare to vote on Nov. 3. The bishops of Wisconsin ask us to review the U.S. bishops’ document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility” (faithfulcitizenship.org). In citing this document, our state bishops (see article) note that, “Recent events have revealed just how fragile our lives are and how essential it is to make sacrifices for the sake of others.”
One of those sacrifices should be of a blind focus on one party or one candidate or one line of action. We need to look at the whole picture. Our state bishops quote Blessed Frédéric Ozanam, founder of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, who lived in a time of political unrest in 19th-century France. In 1851, Ozanam wrote: “Let us learn, first of all, to defend our belief without hating our adversaries, to appreciate those who do not think as we do, to recognize that there are Christians in every camp and that God can be served now as always! Let us complain less of our times and more of ourselves. Let us not be discouraged, let us be better.”
Ozanam was not speaking about political parties in the United States. Nor was he addressing the U.S. elections in 2020. Yet he was asking something timeless: for all people to aspire to do the good, especially in bad times. So, as voters, and as followers of Christ, we must aspire to see that our country always turns toward the good — for the good of all.