Small and Smaller Parties

Sean Mattie

February 1, 2000

If the famous analyst of American politics, Alexis de Tocqueville, were reincarnated to survey the U.S. in this election year as he did in the 1830s, he might feel an odd sense of déjà vu. Back then, he observed that there were no “great parties”—national political parties attached to “principles” instead of merely personalities,” to fundamental purposes not simply policy. Instead the landscape was littered with “small parties,” representing little more than selfish, material interests and squabbles about matters of detail (of course, Tocqueville missed out on Abraham Lincoln’s Republican party of 1860). A year 2000 Tocqueville would similarly conclude that we too are at a political ebb, with our major parties preoccupied with minor matters.

The presidential race is low enough territory to catch sight of the small parties lurking in our political landscape. If the platforms of the leading candidates in the Democratic and Republican primaries are an indication, both parties are hovering at the low level of the political status quo.

Even given the narrowness of party primaries, the campaign of Al Gore shows the hallmark of small parties, according to Tocqueville. In his fiscal overtures to labor unions and teacher unions we see a bald appeal to the special interests that the Democratic party has traditionally courted. As he moves through the primary season to the general election, Gore’s inevitable and aggressive defense of not only affirmative action but also “middle class” entitlements like Social Security and Medicare will reveal the reigning small idea of his candidacy and party: a coalition of selfish interests, each with its special rights, is the national majority. Private benefits are a public purpose.

Fellow Democrat Bill Bradley has campaigned as the candidate who would replace “politics as usual.” But his aspirations for political reform are in truth merely extensions of the kinds of regulatory and entitlement programs with which Al Gore has identified himself. It is Gore’s logic no less than Bradley’s that since government programs mean prosperity, more spending and more programs mean even more prosperity. The disputes between Bradley and Gore about the policy minutiae of expanding government health care and maintaining current levels of Social Security payments reveal the two candidates’ conformity to the big government status quo. Their small-party squabbles about how to distribute government’s favors steer clear of any discussion of why elected officials ought not be the broker for one’s check from the U.S. Treasury.

Looking to the other party, Republican George W. Bush apparently views the race for president as one for the national governorship. As in Texas, Bush would administer the federal versions of education and welfare programs to provide a more efficient public service to a new national constituency. Given his proposed increases in funding for state schools through the Department of Education (however much the money is contingent on test scores and the like) it seems, though, that a Republican party exemplified by Bush is interested merely adjusting the knobs and dials on the federal government’s control board. The ambiguous and inchoate “Compassionate Conservatism” falls short of a principle grand enough to elevate a Bush-led Republican party above small-party preoccupation with policy details.

The surging John McCain is eager to present his leading policy notion, campaign finance reform, as a political purgative and an elemental improvement in American government. Yes, the influence of private campaign contributions and other gifts on the public policy decisions of elected officials is a constant concern in representative government. But trying to restrict the use of private money to influence politics is both fruitless and troubling, and in the end a mere distraction from a fundamental matter. The great issue behind legions of lobbyists’ plying politicians is the size and scope of the federal government. Since there is very little left in American life that it does not regulate, tax, or subsidize, it is no surprise that all sorts of selfish interests want to work Washington. Address this, Republicans or Democrats, and the debate about controlling private money in politics will appear as the small party quibbling that it really is.

Of course, the other “issue” on which McCain is running (rather successfully) is character—his personal honor, integrity, and truthfulness. Now, no one would call ethics a small matter. Moreover, manifest deceit and corruption in the Clinton administration shows that, in our time, the simple uprightness of elected officials is a high thing. Yet, is a platform of personal honesty now sufficient to constitute a great candidate or a great party? The last candidate considered worthy of election on character alone was George Washington. This should tell us something about the need for our candidates and parties to stand for principles of government.

If he could observe our political parties and their spokesmen, Alexis de Tocqueville might think that little has changed since his earlier survey. The great ideas about government that constitute great parties—and present the public with a clear and fundamental choice about the principles and purpose of government—are conspicuously absent in the speeches of leading Democrats and Republicans. Behind their haggling over the details of the federal government’s management of all corners of American life lies a question: what is government in America for? A public answer to that question just might elevate a small party into a great one.

Sean Mattie is a visiting professor of political science at Ashland University and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University (