U.S. Republican presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz speaks in Kansas where he won the caucus March 5. REUTERS/Dave Kaup

Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders and the pure ideologue

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.

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders delivers remarks to supporters at an arena in Greenville, S. C., on Feb. 21, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-SANDERS-POPE, originally transmitted on Feb. 22, 2016.

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders delivers remarks to supporters at an arena in Greenville, S. C., on Feb. 21, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-SANDERS-POPE, originally transmitted on Feb. 22, 2016.

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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.


  1. Well, I agree that the Sanders movement has some unhealthy cultishness to it, but if you were going to judge a candidate or leader by their supporters, you couldn’t support anyone (including Jesus). I think it’s partly encouraged by Sanders’ own way of being, and to that extent you may have a point.

    However, I think your comments on Sanders have two important inaccuracies to them:

    (1) Sanders has worked with a Congress and a Senate who were almost entirely to the right of him on most issues, and he has got stuff done by working with both Republicans and Democrats, neither of whom he shared a party with (though he did caucus with the Democrats). To pluck just one article out of the internet, I recommend the one called “Bernie Gets It Done: Sanders’ Record of Pushing Through Major Reforms Will Surprise You” on Alternet. (By contrast, Cruz of course has shut down the government and managed to get almost all his Senate colleagues to dislike him, even though most of them are in the same party as him.)

    (2) While Cruz’s ideological positions are extreme in the U.S. and even more extreme on a global scale, Sanders’ positions would be considered centrist or at most center-left in many other countries, e.g. in most wealthy countries and in most of Europe and Latin America.

  2. The dangerious trend that you describe should cause rational citizens to support reform of the nomination and election processes. Unfortunately, I doubt it will. The day to day running of the government is dry and dull. Elections are dominated by appeals to emotion and excitement, after which most citizens turn their attention elsewhere, except for griping about how poorly the government performs it job.

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