Tocqueville makes a key distinction between SMALL and GREAT political parties. Great parties are parties of high principle. Their dominance on the political stage has the advantage of bringing great men into political life. They have the disadvantage of rousing up animosity that readily leads to war. So great parties make great men happy and most men miserable. Lee and Lincoln were given by the Civil War challenges worthy of their great talents and ambitions, as was Washington by the Revolutionary War. But these bloody conflicts were devastating for ordinary lives—for most people’s hopes and dreams.
Democracies, however, hardly ever have great parties. Most of the time our parties are coalitions of diverse interests and short on clear and divisive principle. Politicians make petty appeals to ordinary selfishness, and people vote their interests. The bad news is that great men are repulsed by the small stakes and contemptible motives of political life, and so they stay away from it. The good news is that the outcomes of elections aren’t so important, and people aren’t roused up to take to the streets or grab their weapons. The winning candidate and party is the one that most effectively builds a majority coalition of diverse interests, and the losing candidate and party end up acknowledging that, most of all, it got outhustled.We should be grateful to live in an age (and a country) of little parties. For as Brecht put it:
Pity the land that needs heroes.