If Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders become the major party nominees for president this year (both of which are still quite possible), Americans will face a choice between arguably the most liberal and the most conservative senators in the entire Congress.
This rush to the ideological edges would produce a choice unlike any we have ever seen. It is hard to believe it would be satisfying to the moderate middle of American politics – or good for the health of American democracy.
Ideological polarization is the top story of American politics, gathering force since at least the mid-1960s and accelerating since the election of Barack Obama and rise of the Tea Party on the Republican right. It is tangled up with various cultural, moral, religious, and racial conflicts over the direction of American culture, and reinforced by interest groups and 24/7 political media.
In a context of ideological polarization, complex political issues devolve into battles between two “sides.” Nuance disappears. Enemy-talk increases. The other side is not just wrong but sinister. Compromise becomes dancing with the devil.
A certain kind of politician emerges in contexts of ideological polarization – the purer-than-thou ideologue. Such ideologues become, and articulate, intensely pure expressions of whatever ideology they represent. No one can find, anywhere in the world, a better, purer, and more faithful representation of Our Truth than the purer-than-thou ideologue.
There are actually two kinds of purer-than-thou ideologues: true believers, and opportunists who present themselves as true believers. True believers actually believe their ideology, down to their very marrow. Opportunists learn to present themselves as true believers because it is the way to win. Only God knows which purer-than-thou ideologues are true believers and which are opportunists. In the end the difference doesn’t matter that much, except for the soul of the opportunist ideologue.
In contexts of ideological polarization, the way to win is to never allow yourself to be outflanked by an ideologue purer than yourself. So if you are a leftist ideologue, never allow anyone to get to your left and attack you from there. If you are a rightist ideologue, the same applies – never allow anyone to outflank you to your right. If you see some ambitious competitor attempting to position you as one tick to their less-extreme, reposition yourself so that this is impossible. Paint your competitor as a weak moderate compromiser compared to you, and you win.
I believe that Ted Cruz will probably become the Republican nominee because he is not just a purer-than-thou ideologue but also a scrappy, clever politician exploiting Donald Trump’s ideological confusions and tactical weaknesses.
I believe that Bernie Sanders still might become the Democratic nominee because by comparison to Hillary Clinton he is an ideologically purer liberal – especially if he can succeed in treating the Clintons as a team, and can tie Bill Clinton’s 1990s ideological heresies around Hillary’s neck. And Hillary has her own inherent weaknesses besides.
There’s a problem with ideological polarization potentially producing two purer-than-thou presidential candidates. The world is more complex than ideology allows us to see. It is hard to imagine actual human and policy problems getting solved by true ideologues.
And there’s another problem: purer-than-thou ideologues reinforce the same in their opponents, in an endless feedback loop. If anything, an America under Ted Cruz or Bernie Sanders will create an even more ideologically divided government than we already have. Imagine Bernie trying to negotiate with a Republican House, or Ted trying to navigate a Democratic Senate.
The basic work of government would undoubtedly suffer. Passing budgets. Fixing deficits. Securing borders. Repairing bridges. Improving education. You name it. Basically the gridlock we have now, only worse.
When will this ideological fever break? When will our politics deal with the world’s real complexities and reflect our culture’s entire political spectrum, including the moderate middle? It can’t come soon enough.