Gordon in the News: last updated 09/11/2012

Poles Apart? Making Sense of Red and Blue 2012

By Dr. Timothy Sherratt, professor of political science

I appreciate the opportunity to explore everyone’s favorite subject—politics. When Academic Dean Dan Russ invited me to address this topic, he asked for a title, and for some reason I rashly promised to “make sense” of the discord and discourtesy in our political system. I don’t know if I can deliver in the sense of making it all sound rational, because in politics passions and power compete with reason. But I’ll have to let you be the judge of that.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, Republican from Kentucky and Minority Leader in the United States Senate, captured the tone of American politics in our time when he declared that “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” And he went on to explain why Republicans had refused to provide any votes in support of one set of the President’s proposals. “We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off of these proposals,” McConnell said, “because we thought—correctly, I think—that the only way the American people would know that a great debate was going on was if the measures were not bipartisan. When you hang the ‘bipartisan’ tag on something, the perception is that differences have been worked out, and there’s a broad agreement that that’s the way forward.”

At the Democratic Convention the other night, former President Bill Clinton also quoted Sen. McConnell and referred to his declaration as a rare moment of candor. He thanked the senator for being willing to admit what many politicians are eager to practice. Sen Mc Connell is convinced that a great debate is going on in American politics, a battle for the soul of the republic. A great divide between Republican and Democrat. Stark choices. America divided decisively into Red and Blue, a right approach and a wrong one. And that being so, his goal is to win, not to reach agreement across the aisle—especially if reaching agreement would give the other side victory.

The Only Game in Town: The Power Game

Sen. McConnell was willing to go public with his goals and his strategy. But politicians of both major parties play the power game of politics the same way, and for the last few decades, victory at all costs has competed against an older vision of deliberation, debate and decision, with disagreement being handled with some degree of civility. As recently as the 1990s, President Clinton and the Republican Congress hammered out major reforms of the welfare system, forged the North American Free Trade Agreement, and found a way to balance the budget. It was not pretty. Watching the political sausage being made rarely is. But even that grudging bipartisanship is now hard to find. President Obama’s signature achievements were done with next to no Republican support.

The idea that policy-making consists of simple binary options may be news to you. You may have thought that the sagging economy cannot be revived by a single act, and that given how complex an economy is, its health is a function of many factors: public confidence to engage in economic activity, business confidence, the state of other economies whose businesses and populations buy from us or sell to us, the level of taxation, the extent of various kinds of government regulation, the indebtedness of families (including changes in the value of the homes they live in), the salaries offered for the jobs that are available, the level of services provided by government taxes—right down to the local level, where items like the fees charged for a teenager to play high school athletics have to be factored into a family’s decision-making, and on and on.   

If you have a working knowledge of American politics, you will also know that the president has relatively few powers to shape economic affairs directly. Those he has, he shares with Congress, and he needs their cooperation to act. You would also know that the central bank (the Federal Reserve) exercises independent control over the supply of money through setting interest rates, and the President has no control over this. So the economic stimulus, and the bailouts of major banks and car companies that took place when President Obama entered office, seem far better explained as practical steps, not ideological ones.

But Senator McConnell wants none of this way of thinking. He wants us to think that the fate of the republic hangs on what people will choose in 60 days’ time. For him, one way leads to socialism, the other to America. And let me be even-handed about this. Democrats, too, talk and act this way. Party-line votes—all the Republicans on one side, all the Democrats on the other—were a feature of the Bush years as well as the Obama years.

Playing this zero-sum game is now a common pattern in American politics. It looks likely to continue. Let me explain why.

Incentives and Disincentives

To begin with, if you are going to have bipartisan discussions that lead to bipartisan agreements about issues like those I’ve described, you have to have incentives that promote both the discussion and the agreements.

For several decades, a constitutional requirement has ended up undercutting the incentive to cooperate. That requirement is the census. It is completed every 10 years, and each time, it results in a redistricting of Congressional seats according to changes in the population of the states. For example, Massachusetts’ population has declined relative to those of other states, so the Commonwealth has lost a House seat, going from 10 to nine. Redistricting changes the incentives to reach agreement, because those in charge are the political parties and they use it to strengthen their positions. They redistrict to make each party stronger in the seats it now holds.

200 years ago, Massachusetts wrote the book on redistricting, and a famous cartoon appeared at that time. It shows a salamander-like creature, which the cartoonist named the Gerrymander—for Elbridge Gerry, who with the help of the Massachusetts legislature created a salamander-shaped voting district to build a permanent majority in his favor. 

One by one, moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans are being gerrymandered out of existence. They are losing to either redder or bluer candidates of their own party in primary elections, or they are deciding that the partisan atmosphere in Congress is just too hostile, or the districts reshaped every ten years are being made more conservative or more liberal under their feet so that they no longer fit.

Earlier this year, one moderate, Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, was rejected by the voters in favor of a more conservative candidate. Lugar had served in the Senate for several decades. And Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican, has announced that this will be her final year in the U.S. Senate. She cited the polarized partisan climate as a major reason for her decision. On the Democratic side, so-called Blue Dog Democrats, the conservative and largely southern wing of the party, are vanishing from Congress—or turning into Republicans. On both sides of the aisle, moderates are an endangered species.

Back in the 1960s, the two parties had their differences. Democrats were liberals and Republicans were conservatives, but there was a lot of ideological overlap. Political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal even devised a method of scoring members of Congress and locating them on an ideological scale, and that data showed substantial overlap. Thirty years later, that overlap had almost vanished, as the parties kept pulling toward the poles and away from the center. Today, using Poole and Rosenthal's methodology, the two parties don't touch at all. 

Redistricting the way we do it ought to worry us for another reason. It reverses the most basic principle of democratic politics. Democracy is supposed to be the form of government in which the people chose their representatives. But redistricting the way we do it allows representatives to choose the voters most favorable to them. You know that there’s not a lot of democratic control by the people when 95 percent of members of Congress running for re-election win re-election.

As I mentioned earlier, bipartisanship is about incentives. So if your district is bright red, you won’t get re-elected by reaching across the aisle and making bipartisan agreements with the other party. If your district is true blue, the voters won’t thank you for making concessions to the other side. No—you get re-elected by appealing to the majority in your district, which your party helped to make bigger at the time of the last redistricting.


Congress is more polarized than the public. Most Americans’ political views are spread out on a spectrum from left to right, with quite large numbers in the middle. Party polarization distorts this picture. 

But there is another phenomenon that drags the parties towards the extremes, just like redistricting does. Americans make their election choices in two stages. The first stage is the primary, in which voters choose who will run on their party’s ticket in the general election. Most eligible voters don’t vote in primaries, but the activists on both sides do.

Democratic activists are more liberal than Democratic rank and file voters, and Republican activists are more conservative than the Republican rank-and-file. So primary elections help exaggerate the red–blue divide. The activists drag their parties to the extremes.  

But most citizens don’t share the ideology of the activists. In one of the sadder commentaries on the state of American politics, close to half of those eligible decide not to vote in elections at all. And from the point of view of being well represented, you can understand such a decision. (Some of you will know that I prefer a system that fixes this problem not by abolishing parties, but by going to a system that gives us several. There’s no question that having a two-party system has served to turn politics into a zero-sum competition where people are simply not well represented—but that’s another story for another time.)

The Fraught Issue of Rights

Redistricting and gerrymandering is part of the picture of the Red/Blue divide in 2012, but not the whole of it. The issues themselves make up a larger piece of the puzzle.

Half a century ago, a new kind of issue arrived on the American political agenda—civil rights. (New, you say? What about the end of slavery? It’s true that a civil rights movement followed the end of slavery, but civil rights laws fared very poorly at that time. Quite quickly, that early civil rights movement collapsed. Instead, Jim Crow laws established legal segregation. And the Supreme Court upheld Jim Crow laws at the end of the 19th century by declaring the doctrine of separate but equal.)

The 20th century civil rights movement brought a different kind of issue—and a different way to resolve this kind of issue—into the political spotlight. You don’t secure basic rights through compromise, the way most lawmaking gets done in democratic systems. Compromise is usually possible on most issues because you can increase this and cut that and adjust the other thing to accommodate various perspectives on an issue. Take an economic dispute between a company and its employees; there may be lots of disagreement, raised voices, strike threats and the like, but in the end, both sides have room to reach agreement. The workers demand 5 percent, the management offers 3 percent, and each side can make concessions to reach agreement.

You can’t do that with rights. To compromise is to lose everything. In our system, rights are fundamental—the main check on government power. Think property. Think privacy. Think equality. Think about the gun rights advocates who see every regulation as the first step towards destroying the right to bear arms altogether—or the gay rights advocate for whom the only legitimate expression of equality for gay persons is marriage, nothing less—or the zero-sum struggle over abortion. I remember President Bill Clinton seeking common ground on abortion. He thought he had found it in a simple formula. We want abortion, he said, to be legal, safe and rare. Sounds like a compromise. But the common ground won’t hold as soon as someone asks: Safe? Safe for whom?

Civil rights brought a new no-compromise attitude into the heart of politics. And while some rights may be bogus or contrived, we can be grateful that genuinely fundamental rights do uphold citizens’ created dignity, give them space to take up their responsibilities and follow their consciences, or give them equality under the law.

A basic strategy shapes all the rights movements—be it the womens’ movement, the pro-life movement, or whatever. Rights disputes don’t go to legislatures; they go to courts. Laws are challenged in court as violations of an alleged right, and if you win, the courts will strike down or restrict laws that interfere with that right. But "rights politics" is not confined to civil rights, abortion rights, gun rights, women's rights, gay rights or freedom of religion. The logic and the language of rights has entered mainstream politics, too. As Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon put it two decades ago, neighbors who got into a disagreement used to work it out over the garden fence; now, they reach for their lawyers. She might have added that we really don’t have neighbors any more, so thin is the American concept of membership. Rights politics discourages debate, discussion and compromise. You can’t solve a common problem without at least some common ground.

This year’s Republican and Democratic platforms, the official declarations of the positions the parties take on leading issues, nicely illustrate the polarization I have been describing. On major issues of social and moral significance, there is no common ground. Each party's position about immigration, abortion, Israel, marriage, religion, and of course, the economy, is presented to supporters in uncompromising black and white—or should I say, in uncompromising blue and red.  

The either/or mindset percolates down to issues on which bipartisan agreement was once reached. In Massachusetts, for example, then-Governor Romney helped launch the push for a law providing universal health insurance, complete with a mandate that required everyone to carry it—and he signed the bill into law. That law became the model for the federal law called the Affordable Care Act. ObamaCare is RomneyCare. But the polarized system has had Mr. Romney running away from his own creation because his party opposes the Affordable Care Act. Romney had to oppose it, too, if he wanted to become the Republican nominee.

Let me be clear: I do think that some rights are bogus, and that when the courts move too quickly, they can shut down debate that should be opened up instead. And unlike the effects of redistricting—which are almost entirely negative the way we do it— differences over what should constitute basic rights and fairness often reflect principles that should be defended stoutly, however much they expose big differences in worldview.

Insiders and Outsiders

Rights politics and redistricting explain our red–blue polarization pretty well. But they don’t provide the whole explanation. For that, we have to go back to the nation’s founding—something our political parties and their leaders are eager to do with hardly any encouragement. I’m talking about freedom, the flag and the founders.

Every culture has its unifying myths, those stories and symbols that reinforce what it means to be “one of us.”

I could be wrong, and mine is not a scientifically based claim, but few countries display their flag in quite as many ways as Americans do—on public buildings, in churches, on backpacks and backsides. None of these displays are thought of as a desecration. Each is a kind of celebration. The flag drapes the coffins of the war dead. It is unfurled at ball games and saluted in the corner of classrooms. 

Such widespread display makes it inevitable that the flag (and all that it can be associated with) would make its way into politics. And that this would make mischief.

The United States’ founding represented both a military revolution and a philosophical one. The ideas embraced by the Declaration of Independence echo the revolutionary shift to modern ways of thinking about how people and authority ought to be related to each other. Rejecting the norms of traditional societies in which individuals have no choice about becoming members of their society, the American founding declared that free choice by free human beings is the only legitimate foundation for a society.  

What’s the problem, I can imagine you thinking. This sounds very good to me! Free choice by free people should be the only legitimate foundation for a society. How can this possibly work mischief in politics?

It can work mischief because patriotic appeals introduce the language of loyalty into politics, and therefore also the language of treachery—and American political history is full of these appeals.

Americans are strongly committed to keeping government as limited as possible, and self-government as broad as possible. But Americans are equally eager to see that everyone gets a fair shake in society. Individual freedom, choice, opportunity—this is our consensus, our common commitment.

What we disagree about is not the idea of freedom, opportunity and choice in the abstract, but the strategy for realizing it, expanding it, or protecting it in law and public policy. Pick the wrong strategy and your opponents won’t stop at criticizing it as unwise or imprudent or not very effective; they will be strongly tempted to denounce it as disloyal, un-American.

Is the mandate to buy health insurance a reasonable way to enable coverage to be extended to those with pre-existing medical conditions who would be severely burdened without it? Yes, of course, says one party. We’re all Americans. We need to help one another. No, absolutely not, says the other. It’s an invasion of our liberty, the first step down the slippery slope to an un-American form of government that picks our doctors and rations our care.

At the Conventions

All this has been on display at the Republican and Democratic Conventions these past two weeks. There’s strong agreement on liberty, choice and opportunity in the abstract, and it’s been wrapped and re-wrapped in the flag by speaker after speaker. But there the agreement ends. For Republicans, there’s a deep-seated concern (and I don’t doubt it’s  genuine) that if government is enlisted to help support liberty, choice and opportunity, the result will be its opposite—dependence and diminished incentive to acquire the elementary virtues needed to make a good life. This, they fear, is what the Democrats will inflict on the country if they win. And that’s un-American.

On the Democratic side, speakers equally committed to the values of liberty, opportunity and choice tried strenuously to defend the position that when government extends a helping hand, real help arrives—not dependency, not socialism. And Democrats paint the Republicans’ rugged individualism as the law of the jungle, turning the American society into a raw competitive arena, where you’re on your own. In such a hostile environment, only the strong can survive. This, of course, cannot be the America we know and love.

Our common values—our founding as what Seymour Martin Lipset many years ago called the First New Nation—bring into our political debate themes of loyalty and treachery that easily get out of hand. And, I submit, that’s exactly what they have done.

Writing in Harper’s Magazine in 1964, historian Richard Hofstadter coined a name for the politics produced by this combination of agreement on abstract values and disagreement on practical implementation. He dubbed it “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Insisting that this style was neither right-wing nor left-wing, but could be found everywhere, Hofstadter declared, “I call it the paranoid style, simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.” And he went on, “The paranoid spokesman, sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization . . .he does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised. . . . Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish.”

The paranoid style is not new, then. It’s as old as the United States itself. It surfaced in the bitter struggles over the Alien and Sedition Acts at the end of the 18th century with the ink hardly dry on the Bill of Rights, and in the recurring xenophobia over immigration, in the Red Scare after World War I and the McCarthy hearings to ferret out communists after World War II. It does not serve our political order well at all.

The long history in American politics of appealing to first principles, of invoking the founders and wrapping issue positions in the flag, completes my summary of the forces, long-term and short-term, that paint the political scene in red and blue. What I have offered in explanation of our sour political discourse is: redistricting, rights talk and the persistence of the paranoid style.

But I cannot end without anticipating some questions. What might be done about this? And how are we to make good choices in elections that are framed by these political forces? How can we make constructive use of analyses like this for the decision that most of us can make in 60 days from now?

Checking and Balancing

I offer some closing thoughts:

No law, no constitution (however well crafted, and the American one is well crafted) will eradicate the struggle for power. The framers of the Constitution knew this and managed it. They checked power, they balanced it, but they never pretended that agreement could replace the power struggle completely. What they hoped to achieve instead was a process for reaching decisions that rubbed off the rougher corners of the power struggle. And, even in today’s ugly political climate, the mitigating influence of checking and balancing can still influence policy for good.

Faced with the poisonous atmosphere in our politics, should Christians withdraw and simply keep their own house in order? Historically and unfortunately, they haven’t needed much encouragement to do so, especially those of us of evangelical persuasion.

New Testament theologian Tom Wright urges Christians to stay in and engage. “The world works best,” he insists, “when ruled by wise stewards, human beings who are humble before God and hence effective in bringing fruitful order to his world.”

Whether President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney know it, they are contending for the job of steward. Every attack ad issued in a candidate’s name needs to be held up against that standard.

As steward, the successful presidential candidate has a limited responsibility. Government cannot do well more than a few functions. It is poorly suited to raise children or run businesses, but it is well suited to administer justice, defend the nation against attack, and to practice prudent financial stewardship. Prudence also guides it to construct safety nets for imperfect economic systems and other institutions that break, and for other stewards whose stewardship fails. So we have divorce law, and child welfare, and bankruptcy and other forms of debt forgiveness—not because government should run families and businesses, but because families, businesses and all institutions in this fallen world, break. For these reasons, too, government itself has to be limited government.

So, try to pick the better steward and resist the claims trumpeted from the parties and the superpacs that this candidate or that candidate will save the republic.

The most constructive opportunity you should have in the campaign itself to tune out the polarization of the parties will be during the debates. In those forums the two candidates will have the opportunity to address each other. Don’t be surprised to find that President Obama and Governor Romney are more than capable of civil debate. In spite of all the red–blue hostility and the polarizing of politics, both are centrists. The president is a policy wonk; Mr. Romney is a manager. Neither are ideologues. Come watch the debates with us in the Political Science Department.

In quite a different vein, if the two candidates are competing for the job of steward, in this very important task of extending care, nurture and replenishment to the agencies through which people live their lives, Christians can review the candidates’ applications from the perspective of the true king. I refer, of course, to King Jesus.

Power Made Perfect

Rubens’ Render Unto Caesar depicts the famous attempt at entrapment in which the teachers of the law present Jesus with a catch-22: Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? And he turns the tables with his response.

What kind of authority, what kind of power, does the true king exercise? No one phrase sums it up fully, but St. Paul’s account of his struggle with personal failings, recorded in the second letter to the Corinthians, speaks of the power of Christ being power made perfect in weakness.

Right away we think of Christ on the cross as the ultimate expression of divine weakness, which we also call love. Tom Wright again puts it helpfully: Our big story, he writes, is not a power story; it’s a love story. So Christ on the cross, whose sacrifice is the means of atonement and of our salvation, is also the coming king. Power made perfect in weakness is of the very essence of the way God created, nurtures and redeems the world. This is the standard to which Caesar and his successors are held.

For as Jonathan Chaplin has reminded us, government is divinely ordained whether or not it is organized as a democracy. With all due respect to the extraordinary American founders, the origin of government is not a democratic act of We the People. Government’s end is to serve God by doing public justice, an end that both empowers and limits it.

Let’s learn to contemplate and own the biblical truth that weakness does not dislocate the power of God in the world, but may constitute its truest location. That should give us hope that even our small efforts, like trying to make a good set of choices in this election, matter. This should, I trust, encourage us to stay engaged—or become engaged—in the political arena, rather than washing our hands of it. After all, that’s what Pilate did. No, if the power of God belongs in politics because Jesus is the coming king, then the people of God belong in politics, too. And the politics we practice are held to the same standards that judge Caesar.

The power made perfect in weakness possesses another characteristic of great contemporary relevance: it resists easy pigeonholing into any of the unhelpful categories that sour our political discourse. For Christians, this may have the salutary effect of qualifying our political allegiances (even when we have good reasons for them), and encouraging us to think and discuss and pray for wisdom, to examine critically the candidates we want to support, and to speak into the political process with demands that governments do justice and remember the stewardly service they are supposed to render. If Christians don’t make these demands, I’m not sure who else will.

Timothy R. A. Sherratt teaches American politics, constitutional law, and public policy at Gordon. He received his B.A. and M.A. degrees from Oxford University and his Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky. He recently published “Political Symbolism and Elevated Political Discourse” in the Center for Public Justice Capital Commentary series. He also serves as an editorial board member for the Evangelical Review of Society and Politics in the United Kingdom.