2012 Election Special Edition

TALLAHASSEE – Election Day is almost here, and a deeper focus on the philosophy behind Democratic and Republican party rhetoric will help the average citizen make a more informed decision on Nov. 6.

Lost in the heat of partisan politics is the truth that most of us share the same values as a people.

In fact, both parties share core philosophical views traceable to the European and American thinkers of the Enlightenment Period (about 1600-1800). The English philosopher John Locke is probably the philosopher who most influenced American politics in his case for the right to life, liberty and property.

Interestingly, Democrats and Republicans are united in the once radical view that government exists for the good of the people. Many of their differences, however, stem from deciding what role the government should play in serving this good.

Republicans tend to accept the laissez-faire capitalism philosophy of Adam Smith, the author of The Wealth of Nations.

‘Governs least’

Furthermore, Republican views on the role of government are best attributed to the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau, that “government is best which governs least.”

While Democrats also embrace capitalism, the philosophy of the current Democratic Party was shaped by the Great Depression and the New Deal. From their standpoint, this economic disaster was caused by allowing the invisible hand of the market to act with little restraint or regulation.

Democrats tend to favor having the state play a prominent role in regulating the economy, checking the excesses of self-interest in favor of the common good.  Republicans contend checking of excesses can harm the public good by choking the economy. Thus, Republicans generally favor less state influence over the economy.

The Democrats, as exemplified in the New Deal, generally take the view that the state has a positive, active and significant role to play in securing the good of the people, and should be altruistic in its support of programs such as federal student aid, welfare and healthcare.

While the Republican Party also holds to the idea of the state having an active role in the public good and in caring for citizens during times of need, they generally embrace the idea that it is preferable for people to rely on personal success than private charity.


A very strong version of this view is put forth by the Tea Party. Interestingly, they explicitly acknowledge the influence of philosopher Ayn Rand and her collection of essays titled The Virtue of Selfishness.

Her solution was what philosophers call ethical egoism — the moral view that a people should exclusively act in their own self-interest, which creates a better society in which people can succeed by their own efforts without being dragged down by supporting others and without being trapped in dependence.

Thus, some of the key philosophical distinctions between the Democrats and the Republicans involve their views of what role the state should play in securing the general good. The Democrats advocate a more extensive role for the state in securing this good, while the Republicans claim the general good is better served by a more limited state.

This disagreement is often dramatically exaggerated in political rhetoric, which makes it all the more important to remember that far more unites us as Americans than divides us as Democrats or Republicans (or Independents).

Editor’s note: Michael C. LaBossiere is a professor in the College of Social Sciences, Arts, and Humanities at Florida A&M University. Join him on Twitter for a live chat about political philosophy on Nov. 1 at 6 p.m.