The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


Third Parties & Ideology

The question is often raised, Why are there essentially only two major parties in the United States, whereas there are generally multiple parties in other democracies? Are multiple parties endemic to the Parliamentary system?

No one has ever satisfactorily answered these questions, but Thomas Jefferson has provided some insights into them that are worthy of consideration. He suggested that there are two basic sentiments among mankind that express themselves in political parties. These are essentially aristocratical and democratical: anti-people and pro-people.

These he indicates are the basic differences in party sentiment, reinforced by fundamental personality differences in human beings. It is a difference founded in human nature.

It is interesting to note that Jefferson did not divide people and parties into "pro-liberty and anti-liberty," but rather made a division based on whether a person favors government by the people, or government by a select few. It seems especially interesting that Jefferson, the very architect of liberty, the very source of "Jeffersonian Democracy," saw the landscape in terms of interest and power, not in terms of ideology.

What does this difference mean? Could it be that every person is interested in what he perceives as his own freedom? No sane person is opposed to liberty for him or herself. Life and the desire for liberty are inseparable. But the true dividing line in politics is not whether people are for their own liberty or not (since all surely are), but whether they are for the equal rights of EVERYONE to liberty. And if it is the latter, we would assume that they favor the forms of government that provide an equal measure of liberty to all and not just those forms that produce only their own freedom. After all, every dictator has a full measure of liberty. But his liberty is at the expense of everyone else.

The rhetoric of today would translate these questions into a call for "freedom," but Jefferson put it in terms of the people and their power. When the people are empowered, they are able to secure their own freedom. If we look at those countries where there are multiple parties, we see that those on the right are generally those who would put power into the hands of an autocratic elite that will control the people; the left, those who portray themselves as devoted to the interests of ALL the people, whether they actually give genuine expression to the people's voice or not. Jefferson felt that the aristocratical vs. democratical was a desirable division.

What more dangerous principle? What else than differences based on ideology? It seems safe to say that in those countries with multiple parties, ideology has a stronger influence over party philosophy than does this basic aristocratic/democratic difference. Every political theory creates a new political party. The real issue of who governs, the people or an elite, becomes submerged under the call for governmental programs and the rhetoric employed to support them. The emphasis is not so much on who actually governs, the people or the few, as it is on what the governing party will do, i.e., what is their platform. Their main appeal is on the basis of this platform, and the issue of who actually rules, the people or a select group, is either never addressed or is obscured with rhetoric. For example, the Communists claim that they are a "people's" party, but in truth, they are as oppressive of the will of the people (in Jeffersonian terms) as any right wing Nazi party. Both the Communists and the Nazis stand for different ideologies, but both would install a government that is dominated by a party elite, not by the people, and it would be directed by the ideology, not by the will of the people. On the whole, therefore, we may say that the party differences in multiple-party states are dominated by ideological differences, not by the "aristocratical vs. the democratical" division.

When we consider the United States, however, we see a division more in tune with the Jeffersonian model, with less emphasis on ideology. The Republicans have always been viewed as somewhat aristocratical, the party of big business: conservative, controlling of the people, always seeking to limit government programs that benefit the greater portion of the people, while favoring measures that promote monied interests. In America, the only aristocracy we have is that associated with business interests, and this is the one identified most often with the Republicans. The Democrats, on the other hand, have been seen as more people oriented, favoring the interests of the masses to the point of being called promoters of government welfare giveaways, taxing the rich and spending for the poor, pro-labor and restricting business interests. Each party is subject to various ideological currents within these basic orientations, but their general leaning, aristocratic or democratic, seems to govern which kinds of ideology they will embrace. Through it all, the resulting policies promoted by each always seem to serve the party interest as defined by Jefferson. For example, Republicans are against regulation and for trickle-down economics, but who benefits from that but big business and the wealthy? Democrats are for spending programs and minimum wages, but who benefits from that but the people in general? Party ideologies are modified from time to time, but they always end up as though by some magic in service to their basic division, aristocratical or democratical.

In dividing men by their constitutions into two parties, Jefferson said this division was universal. In the multi-party democracies, we can see that the Jeffersonian division is still there to at least some extent, but ideological differences receive greater emphasis, and each of the divisions is sub-divided into splinter parties that have their own platform based on their separate ideologies.

It is likely that the Parliamentary system itself contributes to the encouragement of parties divided on ideological grounds. Since the basic governmental philosophy is not as firmly settled as it is in our constitutional system, there is an opportunity for ideology to have a greater impact. A new government there can with ease switch from capitalism to nationalized industries, whereas here it might take a major overhaul of our Constitution. Parliamentary systems vary from one country to another, but most, like the British, can change their constitution with a simple majority vote. The American Constitution, on the other hand, puts a greater restriction on the federal government and makes it more difficult to change the Constitution itself than occurs under any parliamentary system. In a sense, it could be said that our Constitution establishes our nation's ideology; the major political parties operate within that national ideology and therefore need not focus so heavily on ideology themselves. This question, the effect that the Parliamentary system has on the creation of multiple parties, does not seem to have been adequately explored. It is treated in more detail in the essays related to the Parliamentary system (see below).

But when we come to America, we find two parties marshaled along the Jeffersonian divide. As Jefferson wrote,

The result is, the difference between Democrats and Republicans is often described as a difference without a distinction. But when we look at third parties in America, we are struck with how strongly ideological they are. The Libertarian Party, for example, has an entire philosophical agenda that is vastly different from the sentiments that prevail among the "Republicrats." About thirty years ago, it could be considered as falling roughly on the "people" side of the scale. Now, with the definite swing to the conservative side so obvious in this country, even Libertarians have an elitist odeur. But above all such considerations, Libertarians are unrelentingly ideological.

It should be obvious that if party differences fall on ideological lines, they will tend to result in a multitude of parties, simply because man is capable of creating a multitude of philosophical positions. We have only two major parties and, it should be added, we enjoy the stability that comes from that situation, mainly because our major parties are NOT very ideological. But this raises the next important question: Do ideological parties, like the Libertarians, have a chance in America?

Since America is a country dominated by a large middle class who have a great interest in stability and in having their own needs attended to, it would seem that most Americans would not be attracted to strong ideological change in government. The two major parties struggle to cast their message in a mold that appeals to popular needs and wants, less so to ideological concerns. Our parties have their platforms, but they are remarkable for being mostly ignored. Adopting a heavy ideological message, as the Christian Coalition is always pushing the Republicans to do, is a good way to turn many people off. We have a long tradition of a two-party system with weak ideological leanings and strong democratical traditions. It seems unlikely to change. In view of that, it might seem the best Libertarians could hope for would be to promote those parts of their agenda that offer a solution to the problems of today that the major parties seem unable to deal with. To present a complete ideological agenda vastly different from the prevailing popular sentiments (which seems to be the cornerstone of Libertarian politics) is not something the American people are accustomed to responding to. A major uprooting and replanting of the American political philosophy is something that elitist theoreticians can find interesting, but not the American public.

But when we look at Ross Perot's Reform Party, we see a political party more in the mold of American traditions. It is not very ideological, but presents itself as being what the major parties should be: standing up for government by the people, by the "owner's." In fact, Ross early on called all the leaders of the major parties together to see if he could work his agenda through them -- an agenda based on good government, not on an ideology foreign to American traditions. This analysis would suggest, then, that the Reform Party might have a chance of replacing one of the major parties because they can offer the American people what they want: a better control of their government. This puts them squarely into one of the party divisions as defined by Jefferson: the side that has confidence in the people and that fears most the selfishness of rulers, along with their lobbyists and other influence groups independent of the people. Strong ideology, however, with a complete agenda of ideas not in service to those main Jeffersonian divisions does not seem to be the recipe for success in American politics.

Cross References

To other essays in The Jeffersonian Perspective

To Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government: Table of Contents

© 1996 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.

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