Partisanship from the left and the right is displacing the pursuit of truth in America. It is claiming the political discourse and is painfully evident in our presidential election.
Rather than seeking after truth, political operatives turn to vicious attacks, pretending that there is neither goodness nor truth on the other side. When partisanship wields the negative as its primary tool, the truth loses.
With a media understandably anxious to claim the advertising dollar, negative advertisements fill the airwaves. In a world where hope is fading, attacks influence the gullible and the end comes to justify the means.
In his farewell address in 1796, President George Washington warned "in a most solemn manner" against the development of party or partisanship among the American people. He emphasized that partisanship "serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble public administration." Washington added that partisanship "agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one party against another ... "
Washington acknowledged that partisanship is "natural" but cautioned that it "demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume."
Washington's words were and are prophetic. The national elections immediately following his tenure in office were among the most partisan and negative our nation has known. Once again, we are facing a presidential election of the most negative and partisan sort.
Our national government is "distracted" and "enfeebled" by partisanship. Rather than counseling together, partisans prefer character assassination to truth.
In 1964, my father taught me that partisanship had no place in our home. Goldwater and Johnson were involved in a presidential election pitting two very differing views of the role of government against each other, as is the case with the current presidential election.
As the presidential election unfolded, we had vigorous debates during recess on my middle school playground. One day, I returned home to regale my parents regarding my besting a classmate who favored Goldwater.
My father, a strong supporter of Johnson, responded by escorting me from the dinner table to the living room, which was never a good sign. He sat me down, looked me squarely in the eye and said, "You will not speak about Sen. Goldwater again until you understand the truths he stands for."
Dad gave me some books favoring Goldwater and soon took me to a Goldwater rally, where I heard Ronald Reagan and Goldwater speak. Even as a young boy, I sensed that Goldwater was not the evil man I portrayed him to be on the playground. Indeed, he spoke a goodly measure of truth.
That experience tempered my partisanship. Truth has a tendency to do that.
I am blessed, and I use that term intentionally, to have been able to spend a day with candidates on both sides in this presidential election.
I spent a day many years ago with Vice President Biden on the campaign trail, when I was managing a congressional campaign. I was impressed with his sincere commitment to our country, to family and to making this a better world. President Obama surely shares those sentiments.
Not long ago, I spent a day on the campaign trail with Mitt Romney. His commitment to our country, to family and to making this a better world was quite evident. Rep. Paul Ryan clearly shares those sentiments.
Both tickets are made up of decent men. Starting from a vantage point of respect for the candidates and drawing on the wisdom of George Washington and my own father, there are two steps that will permit the truth to trump partisanship in this presidential election.
First, we can change the channel or walk away when arguments turn negative. When I suggested this course to my students, one remarked that if we did so, there would be nothing left to watch. That is not true. By choosing to turn our backs on the negative, we will make negativity a poor investment for political operatives.
Second, taking care that we are not influenced by the negative, we are left to search out the truth and thoughtfully select between two very differing visions for America, each American in its own right.
Pursuing truth and shunning partisanship will not only "set us free," it will provide the bulwark for good government in the future.
Rodney K. Smith is a Distinguished Professor of Law at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, California.