Tocqueville explains that Americans elect their representatives directly every year: the people thus are constantly influencing daily affairs. Surrounding them, though, are political parties attempting to gain their support. In some large countries, factions arise composed of contradictory interests, in perpetual opposition. In America, though, there are no factions but parties—that is, groups of citizens who have different opinions regarding the same interest, which is how the country should be run.
Tocqueville has complicated, even ambivalent feelings about elections. He often praises the ways in which they invite people’s direct involvement in a nation’s affairs, but he has also shown himself to be wary of the capacity of ordinary people to have undue influence in government.
Early on, America did have two great parties: the Federalists, who wanted to limit the power of the people, and Republicans, who wanted to extend it infinitely. Republicans always held the majority, but most of America’s great founders were Federalists—until Thomas Jefferson, a Republican, was elected President in 1802. From then on, the Republican party has come to attain near-absolute supremacy. Tocqueville thinks that the now-lost triumph of the Federalists was one of the greatest things to happen to early America, for it gave the young nation the stability to test out its doctrines in its early years.
Tocqueville once again gives readers a slice of American history in order to explain contemporary affairs. Here, he is explicitly partisan in this historical account. The Federalists are the party that is most similar to an aristocracy, which helps to explain why Tocqueville prefers them to the Republicans (even as he also is quick to note that it wouldn’t be right or realistic to return Federalists to power against the will of the people).
Now, though, Tocqueville finds that America has no great parties: instead, since almost everyone is Republican and there is no religious animosity or hierarchical division, public opinion is divided into many shades of minute difference. Still, since people will persist in making parties anyway, new parties do rise up—parties whose controversies initially seem trifling and incomprehensible to a foreigner. Still, after some study, it becomes clear that all divisions turn on whether to extend or limit the authority of the people.
The erosion of significant differences and their replacement with “minute” distinctions of opinion will become one of the key motifs that Tocqueville explores in American society. Here he suggests that small differences don’t destroy the existence of parties but rather affect the nature and extent of the arguments that people engage in.
When the Republicans (which Tocqueville also calls the “democratic party”) gained supremacy, they siphoned power away from the wealthy classes, making wealth actually unhelpful in attaining power. The wealthy have submitted to this state of affairs and can even be heard praising republicanism—but it’s clear that they still fear and hate the people.
It’s important to remember that the Republicans and Federalists don’t map neatly onto our modern-day political parties, even if the question of the extent of government authority continues to be a point of contention in politics.