What are the philosophical differences between the parties?

Differences between the two parties begin with questions about human nature and the good society.

Differences between political parties reflect differences in how individuals view the world. These views can be traced back to philosophical questions that have concerned political theorists for centuries.

One of the most important debates in political theory involves the writings of Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. These two seminal thinkers articulated starkly different ideas about humans, the purpose of government, and the relationship of citizens to government.

To grossly oversimplify, Hobbes saw humans as less than perfect and in need of a strong state to mediate between the disputes that would arise. Rousseau believed humans were naturally good but had been corrupted by man-made institutions. The state, for Rousseau, should help humans to fulfill their natural potential.

In the midst of the French presidential election, the magazine Philosophie commissioned a poll to gauge whether the French electorate tilted more toward the thinking of Hobbes or Rousseau. The debate matters because it illustrates the kind of society individuals want: more competition or less, less government services or more, an individualistic society or communal.

Similar divisions exist in the United States. With the cooperation of the Utah Democratic and Republican parties, we replicated some of the philosophical questions on the surveys sent to delegates to the Democratic and Republican state conventions.

We asked the delegates to place themselves on a scale between the two possibilities presented by Hobbes and Rousseau. The numbers in the table are the averages for each party on a scale from 1 to 5. The higher the average, the closer the average is to the position in the right-hand column. (Numbers in parentheses indicate how many people from each party answered each question.)

Following roughly the thinking of Rousseau, the Democratic delegates want a society based more on equality and a government that can meet the needs of the people. Republican delegates, more closely aligned with Hobbes, want a society where individuals can get ahead if they want and a government that occupies itself only with the security and safety needs of the population.

In the other areas, both parties mix Rousseau and Hobbes. Democratic delegates are slightly more likely to believe that humans are selfish and also to believe that laws stipulate what is right and wrong, but not by much. Furthermore, the average delegate from both parties believes in a balance between trusting and supervising representatives, a position that straddles the positions of the philosophers.

Democratic Delegates Republican Delegates
1 5
Humans are good by nature. 2.62
Humans are selfish.
Humans want to live in a society of equality. 2.80
Humans want to climb the social ladder.
Government should meet the needs of the people. 2.51
Government should assure security.
Humans must trust their heart to know what is right. 2.50
The law states what is right and wrong.
The people must watch representatives carefully. 2.86
The people should trust representatives to do their job.
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Differences between the two parties begin with questions about human nature and the good society. These questions have been part of western society for centuries and they continue to shape modern politics.

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4 Responses to What are the philosophical differences between the parties?

  1. Hollie Barenz says:

    Can you fit Locke into this paradigm?

    • Locke does fit into this paradigm. He sees some of the uncertainty surrounding civil society as Hobbes. However, his prescriptions are not nearly as stringent.

  2. Hollie Barenz says:

    Where does Locke weigh in on human nature? I have always thought he would weigh in on the “man is by nature good.”

    • Locke does not necessarily see man as “good by nature.” Locke sees humans as practical beings who seek to avoid pain and pursue pleasure. For Locke, human beings are not born with any “innate” moral sense. See Locke’s essay entitled Essay Concerning Human Understanding, especially the second entitled “No Innate Practical Principles.”

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