George Will: In Defense of Partisanship

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Washington Post columnist George Will, giving a distinctly professorial lecture today at the Washington Ideas Forum at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., said that American politics today "can be best understood" as an ongoing debate between the ideas of two presidents who graduated from Princeton.

Will said that President Barack Obama is "the most crystalline" representation today of Woodrow Wilson's philosophy, while James Madison's ideas are represented by conservative movements such as the Tea Party. "In the Madisonian persuasion, of which I am acolyte, gridlock is not an American problem, it is an American achievement," he said. As for President Obama, "He's trying to govern Madison's country with Wilson's ideas, and there's a certain tension in that."

Will defined the "two poles" of American politics as conservative "Madisonians" who favor freedom against liberal "Wilsonians" who favor equality. However, said Will, "Turns out there's a limitless number of rights once you determine that the government exists to be a fountain of rights." Will said that Wilsonians such as President Obama favor "the multiplication of entitlement programs" which "does promote a certain vision of equality in the country." However, Madisonians are "much more willing to accept broader disparities in outcome."

The conservative columnist argued that Madison first argued that the U.S. government should never "have a tyrannical, oppressive majority," but be compromised of competing and shifting groups. "Wilson came along and turned that on its head" by creating a "unified government" that was "commensurate" with what Woodrow saw as the challenged of modernity.

He cited the individual health care mandate, which proscribes that all Americans must have health insurance, and the recent Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court. "I happen to think that money is healthy in politics because it funds speech." He criticized campaign finance reform, "which the Supreme Court has, virtuously in my own, begun to peel back." He added, "We've set unreasonable limits on the amount of money that can be given to parties."

Will concluded by defending partisanship. "Partisanship is inherently healthy. We have two parties for a reason. People have different political sensibilities, and they tend to cluster." He said that what we typically consider partisanship is actually a "wonderful argument" between these "two strong, venerable political traditions."

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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