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.

1824-2008 Election Season

It seems that ever since American voters turned on to Andrew Jackson in the 1824 campaign, being “a man of the people” has changed its definition in America.

It used to mean someone who had the best interests of our democracy in mind. A man of the people realized he was the people’s representative and their leader. He (and it was, until 2007, always a he) was someone the people could admire and respect.

But with Jackson began the tradition of the grossly unqualified candidate who rode in on his popularity as a military/war hero, with nothing else to recommend him for the office of president. People who had qualms about Jackson’s lack of experience, terrible personality, and unresolved war crimes were painted as elitists, sipping tea with their little finger extended while voting for John Quincy Adams. Adams, son of a Founder, was painted as an effete, useless rich old man who just wanted to reign as king.

This was new to American politics in 1824 and 1828, this use of the western frontier as the place where “real” Americans came from, having a moral virtue of honesty and straightforwardness. Suddenly to be born in a log cabin was a virtue. And from Harrison to Lincoln (great though he was, it was the “log-splitter” image that helped his candidacy) to Teddy Roosevelt (thank God he was a Rough Rider or it would have been over for him!) to George W. Bush, Americans have always fallen for the “plainspoken western outsider” who rides into Washington to clean house.

In 2008, the accurate description of working-class Americans that Barack Obama made are leading the right to call him an elitist. In these days of no western frontier, it is suddenly being in touch with the working class (though never actually from the working class) that stands in for the western sherriff.  Being called an elitist is still the kiss of death.

Jackson was perhaps our worst president. Lincoln was (tied with Washington) our greatest. You can’t always tell how the “outspoken outsider” thing will play out. But we should, after nearly 200 years, be wary of falling for the “elitist” ploy, of watching candidates talk at the working class and then forget them completely, or talk about them even as they describe their economic plans designed to crush the working class more completely.

Let’s go back to what the Founders intended, which was choosing someone for president who:

–understands the principles of our democracy, and

–will suffer and withstand criticism to uphold them

Then, no matter what geographical or financial region the candidate comes from, we will know we have the right one.