Political Parties (Part One): Machiavelli, Cicero and Modern Political Psychology

Graphic by “Vic”)

Almost 12 years ago, I published an essay about Machiavelli’s statements concerning political parties. I thought at the time that his observations were the most insightful I’d come across. Since then, I’ve discovered that Cicero made similar observations about political factions in the Roman Republic. And I think I see similar political groupings in modern republics. What’s behind this social phenomenon? I believe recent discoveries in political psychology provide an answer.

Niccolo Machiavelli discussed political parties in two of his works, The Prince and Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius:

[from The Prince, CHAPTER IX]
“But coming to the other point—where a leading citizen becomes the prince of his country, not by wickedness or any intolerable violence, but by the favour of his fellow citizens—this may be called a civil principality: nor is genius or fortune altogether necessary to attain to it, but rather a happy shrewdness. I say then that such a principality is obtained either by the favour of the people or by the favour of the nobles. Because in all cities these two distinct parties are found, and from this it arises that the people do not wish to be ruled nor oppressed by the nobles, and the nobles wish to rule and oppress the people; and from these two opposite desires there arises in cities one of three results, either a principality, self-government, or anarchy.”

[from Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius, CHAPTER IV.]
“...while in every republic there are two conflicting factions, that of the people and that of the nobles, it is in this conflict that all laws favourable to freedom have their origin, as may readily be seen to have been the case in Rome.”

It turns out that Machiavelli was not the first to perceive two such parties or factions in political life. Centuries earlier, Marcus Tullius Cicero had made similar observations concerning the prominent political factions in the Roman Republic.

XLV. There have always in this city been two kinds of men who have been ambitious of being concerned in affairs of state, and of arriving at distinction by such a course; and of these two kinds one wish to be considered popular men, and the others wish both to be, and to be considered, of the party of the best men in the state. Those whose object it was that whatever they did and whatever they said should be agreeable to the multitude, were the popular party; but those who conducted themselves in such a way as to induce all the best men to approve of their counsels, were considered of the best party. THE SPEECH OF M. T. CICERO IN DEFENCE OF PUBLIUS SEXTIUS

In the original speech, Cicero referred to the “popular” party as “populares,” and to the party of the “best men” as “optimates.” Modern scholars reportedly see the Optimates as having been the “traditionalist,” “conservative” faction, which “opposed the extension of Roman citizenship and sought the preservation of the mos maiorum, the ways of their forefathers.” Their opponents, the Populares faction, sought to support the urban poor, provide debt relief and redistribute land. Sound familiar?

Of course, these were not political parties in the sense they exist today, with charters, bylaws and dues. Nevertheless, they were distinct social groups with conflicting political goals, just like modern political parties.

You can see these same political divisions at other points in history. The following political cartoon was reportedly published in France in 1789, the year of the French Revolution:


Here the clergy and the aristocracy – the French “optimates” of their day – are depicted as riding on the backs of the Third Estate, the common people – or “populares.” The phrase beneath has been translated as, "You should hope that this game will be over soon." It was.

A similar division can be seen in the opposing sides of the Spanish Civil War. The war appears to have begun after a government formed by the Popular Front – the “populares” – enacted laws that stripped away privileges enjoyed by the Catholic Church, forced early retirement upon many military officers, legislated wage increases and nationalized some land. Obviously, these measures antagonized the Catholic clergy, military leaders, industrialists and large landowners – the “optimates” of Spain in 1936 – and they revolted against the government.

Machiavelli and Cicero didn’t try to explain why these factions had appeared in medieval Florence or ancient Rome. It was simply obvious that some people defended the status quo, with its hierarchies and cultural traditions, and they formed a political group to accomplish this. Other people challenged the status quo, with its hierarchies and traditions, and they formed political groups to achieve their objectives. But why have similar things happened at different times and in different places? What’s behind this recurring social phenomenon?

I first addressed this question in the essay “Deeper into the Psyches of Conservatives & Liberals.” I was curious to know why we have different, even opposing, political orientations. I discovered that recent research in political psychology and neuroscience had provided some answers:

  • Psychologists Carney, Jost et al. asserted that there is “consistent and converging evidence" that Liberals and Conservatives have significant personality differences. The results of 88 studies conducted in 12 countries supported Psychologist Glenn D. Wilson's theory, that the Conservative personality is significantly associated with a "generalized susceptibility to experiencing threat or anxiety in the face of uncertainty," and "conservative attitudes serve a defensive function." (p. 261)
  • Jost et al. similarly concluded that Conservative resistance to change and acceptance of inequality were ultimately rooted "in psychological attempts to manage uncertainty and fear." Social change presents uncertainty, which creates anxiety in Conservatives. Conservatives react by resisting social change and defending the status quo. Social equality presents uncertainty with regard to status. To avoid status anxiety, Conservatives resist egalitarianism and defend inequality. Moreover, the status quo usually includes inequality, so defending the status quo usually includes defending inequality on that basis, as well. You can see how this Defensive disposition informs Conservative attitudes with regard to immigration, religion, race, gender, Obamacare and other issues. Changes to the status quo create uncertainty, uncertainty creates anxiety, and Conservatives react to this anxiety by reflexively defending the status quo ante.
  • Liberals also experience anxiety under conditions of uncertainty, but Liberals tend to respond by activating brain processes which mitigate their initial reactions. Presumably this is why Jost et al. found that Liberals were strongly associated with Openness to Experience and traits related to it: sensation-seeking, novelty-seeking, curiosity, creativity, and rebelliousness. It would also explain why Liberals advocate for social change and challenge inequality: through cognitive intervention, Liberals experience less uncertainty anxiety than Conservatives.
  • Ryota Kanai et al. conducted MRI brain scans of 90 individuals who self-reported their political attitudes (“very liberal” to “very conservative”). They found that "increased gray matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex was significantly associated with liberalism," and that "increased gray matter volume in the right amygdala was significantly associated with conservatism." They did a replication study with 28 more subjects and obtained similar results. They noted that one function of the amygdala concerns the processing of fear, and people with large amygdala have been found to be more sensitive to fear. On the other hand, one function of the anterior cingulate cortex is to monitor uncertainty. Kanai et al. therefore cautiously hypothesized that people with larger amygdala would be more inclined to conservative views, and people with larger ACCs, having "a higher capacity to tolerate uncertainty and conflicts," would "accept more liberal views." Overall, Kanai et al. believed that these results were "consistent with the proposal that political orientation is associated with psychological processes for managing fear and uncertainty."
  • In The Neuroscience of Fair Play, Donald W. Pfaff provides numerous examples of how genes affect brain structure and chemistry, including those relating to fear. Nancy L. Segal provides further evidence of the influence of genes, based on twin studies and adoption studies, in her book, Entwined Lives. Dr. Segal estimates (p. 70) that "Approximately 20-50% of individual differences in personality are genetically based."

Thus, there appear to be natural reasons why social groups commonly see the formation of two conflicting political factions. Some members of the group, at least partly for genetic reasons, will be more sensitive to conditions of uncertainty. That will dispose them to band together to conserve the status quo. Other members of the group, at least partly due to their genetic code, will be less sensitive to conditions of uncertainty. That will dispose them to band together to effect desired changes from the status quo. The names of these opposing political factions will vary from time to time and place to place, but the pattern permeates throughout. It is clearest in democracies, where political conditions permit voting by the general public. It’s less clear in autocratic or totalitarian states, where one of the factions is able to maintain one-party control (whether it’s autocracy or totalitarianism by the “Left” or the “Right”), but elements of the other faction will always be around, ready to rise when conditions permit.

We often say, in such circumstances, that the party opposing us is irrational, or failing to see their own interests. But it really comes down to the fact that the parties don’t have the same value priorities. People in these factions will undertake different social and political actions based on the differences in their value priorities. Their social and political calculations are, in this sense, value-rational. Thus, our social groups, while based on cooperation, also experience conflict and competition.

As an aside, this hypothesis fits nicely into Social Exchange Theory, which I discussed elsewhere in the essays “Evolution, Pragmatism and Progressivism” and “Evolutionary Social Exchange Theory.”

To be clear, I’m not suggesting there are just two kinds of people in the world. There appears to be a spectrum or range of political orientations, within which it is possible and common for people to form two opposing political factions [one at each end of the spectrum].

The evidence from modern political psychology also suggests there are discernible factions within these political factions. That will be the subject of my next essay.


There are other views of the Liberal/Conservative divide.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has published a book, The Righteous Mind, in which he asserts that “Liberals” and “Conservatives” intuitively use different moral foundations: Liberals primarily use the moral foundations of care and fairness; Conservatives use the moral foundations of liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity, as well as the moral foundations of care and fairness.

Anthropologist Avi Tuschman, author of Our Political Nature, asserts in his book that the “Left” and “Right” of the political orientation spectrum differ with respect to three personality traits: their attitude toward tribalism, their attitude toward inequality and their perception of human nature:

  • Those on the Right, “conservatives,” score high on measures which he associates with “tribalism” -- ethnocentricity, religiosity and sexual intolerance. Those on the Left, “liberals,” score high associations with attraction to out-groups, secularism and sexual tolerance.
  • Unlike those on the Left, those on the Right score high on measures indicating tolerance for power hierarchies and inequality.
  • Those on the Right perceive human nature to be essentially competitive; those on the Left perceive human nature to be essentially cooperative. (I see this as deriving from their dispositions toward hierarchy and equality.)

Tuschman’s book is truly encyclopedic in scope, presents a wealth of supporting data, and is written in a comprehensible style. If I taught a course in political sociology, this would be the textbook!

17 users have voted.


 Rome at the beginning of the Republic was not a democracy by any means. The rich were preying on the poor.

 The plebeians were oppressed by hunger, poverty and powerlessness. Allotments of land didn't solve the problems of poor farmers whose tiny plots stopped producing when overworked. Some plebeians whose land had been sacked by the Gauls couldn't afford to rebuild, so they were forced to borrow. Interest rates were exorbitant, but since land couldn't be used for security, farmers in need of loans had to enter into contracts (nexa), pledging personal service. Farmers who defaulted (addicti), could be sold into slavery or even killed.
   Some patricians were making a profit and gaining slaves, even if the people to whom they lent money defaulted.

 The first recorded general strike happened in Rome in 494 BC. Because General Strike was not a term that had been invented yet, the term used was Secessio plebis - in which all the plebians (i.e. working class) simply left the city until the patricians (i.e. aristocracy) gave in. The name of this conflict was known as the Conflict of the Orders.
   While the appearance of this conflict was labour related, in fact it was a direct class conflict.

  It didn't happen often, but Secessio plebis was extremely effective when it was used. The plebians used it in 494 B.C. to force the patricians to create the political office of tribune.

 There, without any commander, in a regularly entrenched camp, taking nothing with them but the necessaries of life, they quietly maintained themselves for some days, neither receiving nor giving any provocation.
    A great panic seized the City, mutual distrust led to a state of universal suspense.

 Without the working class cooking, cleaning, and protecting them, the aristocrats were powerless.

  In 449 B.C. it was used to force the creation of a written and published legal code, something the authorities vehemently opposed.
   In 287 B.C., the last time Secessio plebis was used, the working class managed to force the patricians to abolish debt slavery, laws forbidding the marriage of a plebian and a patrician, gave plebians final say in all legislative matters, and allowed any plebian to hold any political office.

10 users have voted.
Lookout's picture

Perhaps it has always been so. The eternal conflict?

Good to see you around the site. Thanks for the thoughtful essay.

9 users have voted.

“Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

jobu's picture

Horatius,” quoth the Consul,
“As thou sayest so let it be,”
And straight against that great array
Went forth the dauntless three.
For Romans in Rome’s quarrel
Spared neither land nor gold,
Nor son nor wife, nor limb nor life,
In the brave days of old.

Then none was for a party—
Then all were for the state;
Then the great man helped the poor,
And the poor man loved the great;
Then lands were fairly portioned!
Then spoils were fairly sold:
The Romans were like brothers
In the brave days of old.

Now Roman is to Roman
More hateful than a foe,
And the tribunes beard the high,
And the fathers grind the low.
As we wax hot in faction,
In battle we wax cold;
Wherefore men fight not as they fought
In the brave days of old.

8 users have voted.

Is very bad to steal Jobu's Rum, is very bad...

jobu's picture

John Dewey expressed this quite thoroughly in 1916. Quoting at length here on this notion of fear and its use in politics:

Let us apply the first element in this criterion to a despotically governed state. It is not true there is no common interest in such an organization between governed and governors. The authorities in command must make some appeal to the native activities of the subjects, must call some of their powers into play. Talleyrand said that a government could do everything with bayonets except sit on them. This cynical declaration is at least a recognition that the bond of union is not merely one of coercive force. It may be said, however, that the activities appealed to are themselves unworthy and degrading—that such a government calls into functioning activity simply capacity for fear. In a way, this statement is true. But it overlooks the fact that fear need not be an undesirable factor in experience. Caution, circumspection, prudence, desire to foresee future events so as to avert what is harmful, these desirable traits are as much a product of calling the impulse of fear into play as is cowardice and abject submission. The real difficulty is that the appeal to fear is isolated. In evoking dread and hope of specific tangible reward—say comfort and ease—many other capacities are left untouched. Or rather, they are affected, but in such a way as to pervert them. Instead of operating on their own account they are reduced to mere servants of attaining pleasure and avoiding pain.

I used to read that last line and think of my Fox News Conservative friends only. Now I include many of my Democratic/Liberal friends as well having fallen so completely for the RussiaGate fear mongering. They have revealed their conservative brains without knowing it.

Coercive force is all the Establishment Corporate Dems have left to retain power within the party. They must use fear as their primary weapon. Sadly, too many have fallen for it. Fear of Trump/Russia/Putin so thoroughly stoked by those in power have left other capacities and possibilities for change within the party (policy) untouched.

8 users have voted.

Is very bad to steal Jobu's Rum, is very bad...

Mark from Queens's picture

6 users have voted.

"If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:


- Kurt Vonnegut

Pluto's Republic's picture

For me, this is one of just a few essays that I have bookmarked separately and printed out. There is something about political parties that I find disturbing. I have collected historical comments and concerns about them, but political or social psychology is definitely the place to look — although I do appreciate studies of the human brain showing the physical difference in humans who identify with rugged individual well-being vs the well-being of society.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting there are just two kinds of people in the world. There appears to be a spectrum or range of political orientations, within which it is possible and common for people to form two opposing political factions [one at each end of the spectrum].

The evidence from modern political psychology also suggests there are discernible factions within these political factions. That will be the subject of my next essay.


This is important. The perversion of the two-party system in the US is that the Parties have grown monolithic and are herded close together (in the center-right) by money interests, so that the spectrum of political factions between them is very tight and narrow and topic-controlled. That pushes the much larger bulk of voters and issues into the realm of outsiders or the far right or far left. Colluding two-party systems build legal barriers against the rise of any other party. When a nation's election system is corrupted by private money, that same two-party collusion can then be operated by the "corporate" State for its own continuing benefit, crushing the needs of both people and society. Two party systems should probably be discouraged since they are so easily corrupted, as we have experienced in the US.

Or, perhaps we have not experienced it. There seems to be a blind-spot here. Focus on the Parties must blind the people to the wholesale corruption of the state. They just keep voting and voting and voting and the war machine keep stealing all their money — while the corporate-owned Parties distract them from the real politik of the wars for Empire with issues of gun rights and social justice.

Well, at least the US serves as an example to the world of the kind of damage Parties can do.

I look forward to your follow-up essay.

5 users have voted.

The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself.
– Albert Camus
The Liberal Moonbat's picture

@Pluto's Republic America should never have had political parties (and WHY do we have them? Because of some puerile West Side Story-like feud between Jefferson and Hamilton).

I only registered as a Democrat when I came of age so I could vote in primaries, since I thought that mattered - imagine what kind of message 2016 sent me?

3 users have voted.

“Remember, when the emperor looks naked, the emperor IS naked. The truth and the lie are *not* 'sort of the same thing'.” — Daria Morgendorffer

The Liberal Moonbat's picture

One word: Speciation.

Evolution has never been graceful or pretty...and its principles still apply.

Also: I'm autistic, which makes me either Liberaller-than-Liberal, according to this schema, or...some kind of authentic tertiary avenue that nobody else can fathom. I can't help but see Albert Einstein as almost a greater sociologist than physicist - and if Einstein himself wasn't the unsung Einstein of 20th-Century sociology, my conclusion has long been that nerd icon Gary Gygax was (why do we take the various sociopolitical "spectra" seriously, but not the Dungeons & Dragons alignment system, which is synthesized from any number of mystical/mythological/philosophical/metaphysical/literary traditions the world over?). I've been enthused for years by the prospect of autism being the next step in human evolution (imagine if everyone were autistic - it wouldn't be a cure-all, but war and other hallmarks of the human hivemind would be impossible), but what must that entail? Note also (for those of you who have been at all aware of it) the anti-autism backlash/co-option of the past several years; if the 1990s was "Revenge of the Nerds", the 21st Century to date has been "Revenge of the Jocks", more recently with the cheerleaders, preppies, and even the formerly-friendly glee club sets piling on (am I the only one who thinks that the veracity of high-school stereotypes may go deeper than just the bias of the present culture environment?). Heck, have you heard of Autism Speaks? Autism is surely the only phenomenon for which the leading "advocacy group" is actually a hate group against the individuals it claims to speak for! Sexism? Racism? Classism? Nationalism? The liberal point on all these things is that they're invalid divisions, and that the differences between them, if they exist at all, do not merit recognition as they don't hold a candle to the differences *within* each of them - but what is to be done with a group for which the difference is, at the level of the very foundations of the mind, *real*?

4 users have voted.

“Remember, when the emperor looks naked, the emperor IS naked. The truth and the lie are *not* 'sort of the same thing'.” — Daria Morgendorffer

Pluto's Republic's picture

@The Liberal Moonbat

It's an evolutionary map worth following.

2 users have voted.

The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself.
– Albert Camus