De Tocqueville on Red and Blue States

I was listening once again to Bill Cook’s fantastic lectures on De Tocqueville last night and he was on the section where De Tocqueville talks about political parties.

De Tocqueville describes two types of political party: great parties and small parties. Great parties, he says, overturn society, replacing one system of thought with another. Small parties agitate within society. So whereas great parties tear society apart and create a new society, small parties only degrade the existing society.

Great parties focus on ideas, the big picture, and the general effects of those ideas in practice. Small parties are petty, focused on individuals, immediate consequences, the here and now, and, above all, victory. Victory is more important than convictions, and when winning is job one, the small party will compromise its own values to win. The small party doesn’t really have a philosophy or faith in a set of values. It will adopt whatever policies allow for victory, and will scare voters by predicting that individuals from rival parties will cause immediate negative consequences for them.

When De Tocqueville was writing, in the 1830s and 1840s, there were no Republicans and Democrats as we know them; the two-party system was not yet in place in the U.S. But his description of great and small parties rings true today.

The party that says if Michael Dukakis is elected president, then Willie Horton will come to your house and kill you, is a small party. The party that wants you to focus on a gas tax holiday over the summer of 2008 while accomplishing nothing toward our long-term fuel problems, is a small party. The party that agitates against gay marriage while ignoring or generating the economic problems families face is a small party. The party that gives lip service to military personnel and their families while refusing to pay those personnel properly or support their families in any way if the on-duty family member dies in service, is a small party. The party that builds a wall to keep out immigrants while refusing to penalize businesses that hire illegal immigrants, and while refusing to stop using the services of illegal immigrants itself, is a small party.

As we vote this year for a president, and as we vote in other years for Congress members, governors, state legislators, and the many referenda that come up in our individual states, we should remember De Tocqueville’s definitions of parties, and make sure we cast our vote for the party that overturns some long-held ways of doing things in order to create more common good, rather than the party that merely asks us to hate someone else in our country.

The party that tells you that your good can only come about if someone else is punished is the small party, and does not deserve your vote. The party that tells you that the U.S. must continue to do what it has been doing because to change course is to lose, that change is humiliation, does not deserve your vote.

Keeping De Tocqueville in mind whenever you go to the polls will remind you that this nation was founded on big ideas and overturning society for the good, and that no harm can come of Americans thinking big.

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