Democracy in America: All Parties are Minor Parties

In his classic study of Democracy in America from 1835, French historian Alexis de Tocqueville did not fail to consider the nature and character of political parties in the United States. Writing in the midst of what is now sometimes called the second party system, Tocqueville draws a distinction between what he calls "great parties" and "minor parties." He writes:

The political parties that I style great are those which cling to principles rather than to their consequences; to general and not to special cases; to ideas and not to men. These parties are usually distinguished by nobler features, more generous passions, more genuine convictions, and a more bold and open conduct than the others. In them private interest, which always plays the chief part in political passions, is more studiously veiled under the pretext of the public good; and it may even be sometimes concealed from the eyes of the very persons whom it excites and impels.

Minor parties, on the other hand, are generally deficient in political good faith. As they are not sustained or dignified by lofty purposes, they ostensibly display the selfishness of their character in their actions. They glow with a factitious zeal; their language is vehement, but their conduct is timid and irresolute. The means which they employ are as wretched as the end at which they aim. Hence it happens that when a calm state succeeds a violent revolution, great men seem suddenly to disappear and the powers of the human mind to lie concealed. Society is convulsed by great parties, it is only agitated by minor ones; it is torn by the former, by the latter it is degraded; and if the first sometimes save it by a salutary perturbation, the last invariably disturb it to no good end.

On the basis of this distinction, one can easily conclude that there are no "great parties" in the United States today: the smallness of Democratic-Republican party politics and government forces us, paradoxically, to place the major parties among the ranks of the minor parties. Tocqueville himself drew the very same conclusion. He continues:

America has had great parties, but has them no longer; and if her happiness is thereby considerably increased, her morality has suffered.

Tocqueville effectively argues that the Federalist and Anti-Federalist associations of the country's foundational years constituted something like a grand dyad, in comparison with which succeeding parties could only pale in comparison:

When the War of Independence was terminated and the foundations of the new government were to be laid down, the nation was divided between two opinions--two opinions which are as old as the world and which are perpetually to be met with, under different forms and various names, in all free communities, the one tending to limit, the other to extend indefinitely, the power of the people.
Tocqueville then goes on to consider the means and effects of the politics propagated by the dominance of minor parties:
Great political parties, then, are not to be met with in the United States at the present time. Parties, indeed, may be found which threaten the future of the Union; but there is none which seems to contest the present form of government or the present course of society. The parties by which the Union is menaced do not rest upon principles, but upon material interests. These interests constitute, in the different provinces of so vast an empire, rival nations rather than parties. . . .

In the absence of great parties the United States swarms with lesser controversies, and public opinion is divided into a thousand minute shades of difference upon questions of detail. The pains that are taken to create parties are inconceivable, and at the present day it is no easy task . . . Nevertheless, ambitious men will succeed in creating parties, since it is difficult to eject a person from authority upon the mere ground that this place is coveted by others. All the skill of the actors in the political world lies in the art of creating parties. A political aspirant in the United States begins by discerning his own interest, and discovering those other interests which may be collected around and amalgamated with it. He then contrives to find out some doctrine or principle that may suit the purposes of this new association, which he adopts in order to bring forward his party and secure its popularity.

However, Tocqueville perceives an echo of the –now, as then, extinct– great parties in everyday American politics, and, in a quasi-metaphysical affirmation, states that aristocratic or democratic impulses are a motivating factor in all American political parties because they are a motivating factor in all political parties:

The deeper we penetrate into the inmost thought of these parties, the more we perceive that the object of the one is to limit and that of the other to extend the authority of the people. I do not assert that the ostensible purpose or even that the secret aim of American parties is to promote the rule of aristocracy or democracy in the country; but I affirm that aristocratic or democratic passions may easily be detected at the bottom of all parties, and that, although they escape a superficial observation, they are the main point and soul of every faction in the United States.
And today? Is there really any question whether the so-called "major parties" serve to extend or limit the authority of the people? whether they are motivated by democratic or aristocratic aims and impulses? To extend the authority of the people is to limit the power of the ruling political class. To expand the authority of the ruling political class, one must appear to extend that of the people. This is the art of politics under the conditions of the contemporary two-party state: the partisan, populist rhetoric of the ruling factions serves primarily to conceal the common oligarchical agenda of the ruling political class.


Samuel Wilson said...

Of course, the Bipolarchy seeks to convince voters that it is a continuation of the "great parties," each party claiming to be the party of the people against the other party's aristocratic tendencies. For Democrats, aristocracy consists of the super-rich (defined indiscriminately) and their unwashed racist and fundamentalist auxiliaries. For Republicans, it consists of a nebulous "elite" and its unwashed racial auxiliaries. At the same time, the modern Bipolarchy has altered the terms of the original "great party" debate into an eternal argument over the size and scope of government, so that so long as government is small, and Republicans control it, it's not aristocratic, or if it's large, yet Democrats control it, it's not aristocratic. By changing the nature of the choice, each side effectively obfuscates the uninterrupted ascendancy of the aristocracy that is the Bipolarchy itself.

d.eris said...

Excellent point, that could also be articulated in terms of anti-big government and anti-big business faux populism.

In the remainder of the chapter, Tocqueville also comes close to asserting that the current parties are the "continuation of the great parties," as you put it, but this would conflict with his claim that the great parties are no more. His theoretical position, which comes down to a binary opposition between aristocracy vs. democracy, strikes me as overly simplistic.

In an Aristotelian vein, one could argue that the aristocratic and democratic impulses are not properly political because they are not universal in their scope, insofar as they aim at asserting and maintaining the rights of one class over all others. Aristotle allowed for the possibility of a third option beyond the opposition between aristocracy and democracy, namely, the polity!