America’s first president, George Washington, warned the country in his 1796 Farewell Address against the “the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.” For Washington, writes historian Maurizio Valsania, “finding ways to moderate ‘the fury of party spirit’ was pivotal to the survival of the entire nation.”

Valsania, a professor at the University of Turin who works in the U.S., was reminded of the founders’ antipathy toward political parties – which they saw as factions – as he watched President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address. Lawmakers from one party applauded while lawmakers from the other party booed or sat on their hands. Valsania wondered: Did early America’s leaders predict today’s politics, where political parties seem to be vehicles of tribalism and obstruction rather than vehicles to achieve the public good?

Like a modern-day Alexis de Tocqueville, Valsania, a European, brings the fresh perspective of a foreigner to the many stories he has written for The Conversation about the early American republic and the men who shaped it. This Presidents Day, we bring you his account of what those early Americans thought about political parties, with the implied question in all of Valsania’s stories: What does this mean for Americans today?

On Saturday, the Carter Center announced former President Jimmy Carter, aged 98, had entered hospice care. Historian Robert C. Donnelly provides a fresh analysis of the 39th president’s Cold War strategy to weaken the former Soviet Union through his focus on human rights.

Also today:

Naomi Schalit

Democracy Editor

During President Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech, many Congressional Democrats stood and clapped, but the GOP did not. AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

Do we need political parties? In theory, they’re the sort of organization that could bring Americans together in larger purpose

Maurizio Valsania, Università di Torino

Americans are not the first to fret over the potential harm that parties can inflict. But parties can also promote the common interest.


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