An Anatomy of Our Politics

Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America offers a sober reality-check to citizens of democracies, based on the facts of human nature:  “Two opinions. . .are as old as the world, and. . . 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.”

According to Tocqueville, the conservative/liberal division is not a “thorn in the side” of the body politic, but rather an essential element of any free society. It acts like biological homeostasis in maintaining political health. Just as the body maintains correct temperature by perspiring in excessive heat, and shivering in excessive cold; and just as the pancreas secretes insulin in measures necessary to keep glucose concentrations normal – so also, liberals are always on hand to champion people’s rights, while conservatives will be aroused to prevent statist excesses, champion rights not envisioned by the majority, and support types of leadership not swayed by popular currents or fads.

Tocqueville’s attempt to point to several “constants” in human nature is borne out by some studies in psychology and behavioral genetics. Identical twins separated at birth tend to have similar political views. Extraverts tend to be optimistic about the inherent goodness of everyone and gravitate towards liberalism; introverts often harbor reservations about the unpredictable twists and turns of human nature, and gravitate towards conservatism.

In The Blank Slate, neuroscientist Steven Pinker cites sociological studies indicating that there are clusters of attitudes, which, at first glance, don’t seem to have anything in common, associated with liberals and conservatives:

If someone is sympathetic to rehabilitating offenders, or to affirmative action, or to generous welfare programs, or to a tolerance of homosexuality, chances are good that he will also be a pacifist, an environmentalist, an activist, an egalitarian, a secularist, and a professor or student. . . .If you learn that someone is in favor of a strong military. . .it is a good bet that the person is also in favor of judicial restraint rather than judicial activism.  If someone believes in the importance of religion, chances are she will be tough on crime and in favor of lower taxes.

When we consider Tocqueville’s theory about extending vs. limiting the power of “the people,” however, we should also keep in mind that, in line with psychological variables, liberals and conservatives tend to have different definitions of “the people.” For many conservatives, the “people” may connote a “silent majority” often hindered from achieving their goals because of government overreach; for many liberals, the “people” may mean groups, large or small, sometimes “marginalized,” sometimes mobilized, seeking more government intervention.

          Alexis de Tocqueville by Théodore Chassériau (1850)

How this breakdown of the political scene contributes to social-political “health” depends to some extent on constitutional structures. In parliamentary systems, multiple parties can develop coalitions to present a united front. In our de facto two-party system, third parties can cause confusion.  Numerous third parties emerged in the twentieth century – the Prohibition Party, the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, etc. Even a Natural Law party arose in the last presidential election! The most recent third parties with some clout have been the Libertarians, the Greens, and the Constitution Party.

One problem with third parties in our two-party system is that they can lead to what Lewis Carroll, in one of his mathematical speculations, called the “voter’s paradox.” For example, if an electorate has a choice of three candidates, and one group’s priorities are A>B>C, another equally large group’s priorities is B>C>A, and a third equally large group prefers C>A>B, the “majority,” in spite of differing priorities, could end up preferring A over C, if they are first told to choose between A and B, and then asked to choose between B and C. But only the first group actually preferred A over C.

The main problem is that in a close election, votes for a third-party candidate can subtract from the votes from one of the two major parties, leading the party to lose by a small margin.  In the 2000 presidential election, for example, many supporters of Al Gore complained that Ralph Nader played the role of an obstructionist, siphoning votes away from Gore.

The ideal, of course, is that in our two-party system each party will provide revisions or checks to the proposals put forward by the other party – for example, requiring compromises in spending if one party’s actions threaten financial stability; or exempting certain categories of persons or groups from excessive government control; or applying certain restrictions by law to prevent extreme departure from traditional moral standards.  Specific examples of the latter development might include the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the military until recently, or the variety of restrictions supported by many of the states to curtail the number of elective abortions in the state.

As I mentioned in a previous article, however, the very real threat facing American democracy at present is that the “classical” liberalism that has prevailed until the latter half of the twentieth century has given way to a new brand of liberalism that goes beyond the protection of basic, broadly recognized rights, and invents “rights” flouting traditional moral norms. So the present danger is that liberals will become so ideological and “in your face” with moral confrontations that compromise is almost impossible without extreme sacrifice of principles.

It is also conceivable that conservatives, in their opposition to government encroachment on the rights of individuals or groups, may tend toward anarchic dismissal of legitimate and necessary governmental controls.  But this hasn’t happened yet. At present, the “ball is in the other court.” The search is on by conservatives to locate some influential classical liberals, with whom the possibilities of compromise are more sanguine.


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Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.