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.

A note from Brad Miner: If I may ask: Where else on the internet do you find anything quite like The Catholic Thing? As Dr. Royal has written in this space: “We’re grateful at The Catholic Thing for the support of readers this past week. In particular, a number of donations came in over the weekend. But we are far behind where we need to be by the end of the year if TCT is going to be able to keep on bringing you that faithful Catholic commentary you come to this site to read every morning” We understand that money is tight. We really do. And that’s why we’re not asking for much. We don’t hector you with alarums about the thousands of dollars in shortfall we face. But please understand: we pay our columnists, and Bob, Hannah Russo, and I work very hard (here and at to bring you what we hope is a wonderful way to start each day. We’d be sitting pretty if every reader forked over what you spend each week on the cups of coffee or tea you drink while reading each new TCT column. Give to The Catholic Thing today. If I may ask: How would you feel if tomorrow we weren’t here?

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  • Gian

    Steven Pinker is rabidly anti-Christian and given to making loose, erroneous, sweeping statements about Christianity and the Catholic Church. Eg the FAQ on his site about his latest book, states that Catholic Church did nothing about the Nazi Govt.

    He does not deserve to be quoted in a Ctholic website.

  • Nick Palmer

    Brad, in response to you question in itals at the end of the article: If TCT weren’t here tomorrow, I’d be bummed out. Donation made, I only wish I could do more. This is my first stop in the morning. Your stable of contributors is phenomenal, and they do a great job of packing a lot of thought into a small amount of space.

    God bless you all at Christmas and into the New Year. Keep it going!

  • Ray Hunkins

    We are reminded by your excellent summary that there is sometimes benefit in the “gridlock” of our political institutions. In a constitutional republic “gridlock” becomes the ultimate defense. Our founders designed this defense to provide the opposition with a tool to prevent, or at least delay until the next election, radical ideas and deviations by the majority.

  • Brad Miner

    Nick: You are a gentleman and a scholar and have impeccable taste in websites. Thanks from all of us, and have a blessed Christmas. -Brad

  • Howard Kainz

    @Gian: A writer would be severely restricted if he had to check the attitude of his sources towards Christianity before citing their research findings. Yesterday’s column on abortion utilized the opinions of Margaret Sanger, who was no friend of Catholicism. St. Thomas Aquinas used the ideas of Jews, Muslims and pagans copiously. The scholastics making use of non-Christian and even hostile sources compared themselves to the Israelites stealing from the Egyptians at the Exodus. Stephen Pinker’s book has a wealth of research data cited in his footnotes, much of which I find usable, e.g., in philosophical anthropology.

  • Thomas C. Coleman, Jr.

    Several monumental changes have taken place in the academic and philosophical environements in US since the WWII make understadning our country based on the conservative-liberal model ompossible. First of all, those beliefs by which those who now call themselves liberals define themselves would have been thought of as radical by earlier generations of of liberals. For example, the very sine non qua belief that is necessary to hold in order be regarded as enlightened is that homosexual acts cannot be differntiated morally or biolobically from sexual inetercourse between a man and woman. When millions cheer a president who says that no one should be denied the right “to serve their country based on who they love” and supports abortion because he woulldn’t want his daugher “punished witha baby is she made a mistake” we know we have moved away from mere liberalism. Another chagne is that more people today go to college than ever before and while there are indoctrinated with the set of beliefs that they are told sets them apart from those trogledyte conservatives who are holding mankind back from further evolution toward a world of absolute freedom and government prorvided wealth, leisure, and health. We have NOT been here before even if some of the terrain seems vaguely familiar.

  • Ben Horvath

    One of the problems is that the ‘conservative’ party has progressed to the point where a lot of the top people share the liberal social values that broadly dominate the upper class. I’d point out that the response from the R establishment to the dismissal of ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ was pretty muted, especially since it was happening at the same time as a major treason scandal allegedly perpetrated by a homosexual soldier specifically because of his homosexuality (Bradley Manning). Also, high level Rs like Dick Cheney have come out in support of blasphemarriage and its not exactly a secret that the NY State approval of this institutional revolution was greased by high net worth Republicans.

    In other words, do we prefer to be (slowly) stabbed in the back or in the front?

    Its important to remember that social conservatives have votes but not money. While 3rd party candidates can’t realistically be elected to nationwide offices, they can force the major parties to change course to embrace the principles that animate the 3rd party.

  • Other Joe

    The article is a nice, scholarly and safe exploration. In the real world, centralized government power has grown steadily for decades and the growth has become more rapid lately. Government policy continues to weaken traditional sources of local power such as family, community organizations (including school government), and in case one hasn’t noticed, church assemblies, state and local governments. Has anyone looked at the statistics for marriage and co-habitation recently? A “clasiic” liberal traditionally is for the little guy not for state machinery uber alles. What is called a liberal today is actually a progressive left-of-left statist who believes in centralized state control of all aspects of life. It’s called “regulation”. And it is for “our own good” as defined by secular interest groups. Both political parties offer policy fixes to problems either created or enabled by government policy. None of the Republican front runners are anarchistic! The more severe merely want to slow the increasing growth of centralized power (and money translates into power hence the deficit spending). Meanwhile a self-described “liberal” television presenter, Barbara Walters, last night celebrated the Kardashian family with free prime-time marketing exposure for their fame enterprise, which included actual frames and video clips of Kim’s sex tape with a man she had merely hooked up with! The liberals I knew growing up recognized the difference between being informed and being pandered to with filth. So while the thought exploration is nicely mannered and achieves a kind of flourish of “balance”, the world we live in is becoming increasingly nasty, brutish and vulgar. The rule of law is increasingly ignored. Our families are not healthy and we have to beg, as Catholics, to keep some semblance of the rights of conscience. I am neither a gentleman nor a scholar, but I know trouble when I see it. I am merely amplifying Mr. Kainz’s last two paragraphs in less scholarly tones.

  • Michael

    I must take umbrage with Mr. Kainz’s statement that “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.”
    This hasn’t happened yet? What rock are you hiding under? Or perhaps whose neocon payroll are you supporting your family with? Highly financed “conservatives” (read Republicans) have successfully lobbied Congress for the passed thirty years to successively ease “necessary governmental controls” on the finance and business sector which helped to create the S & L crisis in the 80’s / 90’s (cf. Harvard professor turned Dem Sen. Elizabeth Warren a la “Fighting for Main Street Against Wall Street”), the junk bond boondoggle (just ask CTFC regulator Brooksley Born), and the recent near miss of the collapse of the entire international financial sector (a la FDIC’s head regulator Sheila Bair, cf. “Too Big To Fail”). And then ask all the taxpayers who bailed out these big wigs or who have lost their life savings or their jobs if “this hasn’t happened yet”. It’s high time we stopped being either “conservatives” or “liberals” and started being either catholics or Catholics.

  • Gwenevere

    I enjoyed this piece very much, and would like to comment on one part of it:

    “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.”

    Many conservatives are having second thoughts on how to define civil marriage; many, if not most, libertarians naively believe that government should stay out of marriage.

  • Howard Kainz

    @Michael: I don’t think it was just deregulation that brought about the S&L Crisis. For example, it was Democrats who forced subprime mortgage lending policies on the banks, with the help of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Dept. of Housing and urban Development. In any case, I agree that we should make our allegiance to “conservatism” or “liberalism” subordinate to our focus on being Catholics.