In American political rhetoric”stump speeches, newspaper editorials, party propaganda”the terms “left wing” and “right wing” are used as epithets. They are terms of opprobrium. We employ them on our opponents, hoping to persuade voters to turn away from such dangerous ideologues. When “radical” is added as a prefix-“radical left,” “radical right””the accusation is meant to raise spectres, of socialism in the one case, fascism (or something akin to it) in the other. And in any case, we imply that these people out on the wings intend to subvert traditional American values, that they have inflexible commitments and covert programs whose enactment will take away much of what we hold dear.

Distressed by the sloppiness of this rhetoric, many people over the years have tried to tidy it up one way or another. One project that surfaces regularly is to remake our two major political parties along ideological lines, so that we can use the terms “left” and “right” with real meaning, and not unappreciatively. George Wallace’s complaint about there not being “a dime’s worth of difference” between the major parties would be effectively answered. “Left” and “right” would refer to a specific list of antithetical positions, issues which would define real distinctions and add up to genuinely contrary visions of what is good for the commonweal. Thus would reason return to democracy, civility and intelligence come at last to characterize political discourse, and the tone of debate become worthy of a mature citizenry.

Attractive though it may appear at first glance, this project is wrong-headed, a disservice to the health of the Republic and doomed to failure anyway by the reality of American political life and law. A sampling of the issues currently candidates for ideological demarcation will demonstrate the problem quickly enough.

”The Congressional leadership of the Democratic party has been candid and explicit about wanting to treat George Bush’s proposal to reduce the capital gains tax as a “defining issue,” one that would clearly separate the parties to the presumed advantage of the Democrats. The tax reduction, which would benefit overwhelmingly the wealthiest one percent of the population, seemed made to order for the populist, anti-rich theme that the party coveted for itself. Unfortunately, so many Democratic congressmen deserted the leadership that the President’s proposal passed the House, and in some form seems likely to make it through the Senate as well. The “class” theme did not catch on because Americans don’t think of themselves in such sharp categories.

”The abortion issue has been ridden hard by the Republicans, who have hoped to make it the keystone of their “conservative” approach to social issues, thereby distinguishing themselves sharply from the “liberal” Democrats and riding a perceived tide of conservative sentiment to political power. But the mounting dissension of Republican women has dulled the party’s appetite for this matter, and the apparent backfiring of the issue at the polls (e.g., in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races, in a southern California state senate contest, in the Florida legislature) has probably rendered it useless for strictly partisan purposes. Americans certainly differ about abortion, but most of them are unwilling to let that difference polarize their entire political outlook.

”The Democrats have tried to use feminism to their advantage, nominating a woman for the vice- presidency and citing substantial Republican opposition to ERA among other examples that they thought would favor them among women voters. In fact more women did vote for Dukakis than Bush in 1988, but hardly enough to change the election results. There are women prominent in the Republican administration, and millions of women who are not insensitive to feminine concerns will continue to be courted by and vote for the Republican party.

And so it goes through the list of issues proposed to separate “left” from “right.” Are the Democrats “soft” on national defense, as Republicans would have it? Sam Nunn, like “Scoop” Jackson before him, is hardly a peripheral Democrat. Do the Republicans have a monopoly on piety, as their espousal of school prayer is meant to imply? Many constitutional conservatives, traditional Baptists, and wary Catholics with good memories are as strict as the ACLU in opposing state-sponsored prayers, and this issue accordingly refuses to fall neatly along political lines.

The systematizers regard these examples as symptoms of the confusion they want to clarify. But the situation is really not to be deplored. It is a condition deeply ingrained in our character and our laws, inevitable, inexorable, and withal useful. Our electoral process is characterized by winner-take-all contests, where the competitors must appeal to non-ideological swing voters in order to be successful. Congressmen are chosen from single-member districts where the highest vote-getter is the only one elected. Naturally the candidates are competing for the common center and must mute their appeals to “left” or “right”; and so, inevitably, they do not sound terribly different from each other. The same process is repeated on the national level in the presidential election; and thus the parties, whose principal reason for being is to win the presidency, the major prize in American politics, cannot be radically different from each other.

Is this bad? On the contrary, I argue that the process works for the good of the Republic. Effective democratic politics must be adroit at the art of compromise if people of different persuasions are to live together in any decent kind of civil peace. Such politics must eschew ideological rigidity. The parties, in order to win elections, must of necessity sort out competing interests among their constituencies. They thus perform an invaluable social function, brokering the trade-offs that make possible the effective government of a heterogeneous country.

Two quick comparisons will make the virtues of the American system stand out more clearly. Britain has single-member districts for parliamentary elections, as we do, yet nevertheless sustains a noticeable ideological conflict between the dominant parties. But Britain’s political competition is rooted in sharp class distinctions that are alien to the United States; and in any event the resultant abrupt policy swings when control of parliament changes hands have not been kind to the British economy.

In France under the Fourth Republic, members were elected to the National Assembly by proportional representation, and the system has been only partly modified by the double round of balloting in the Fifth Republic. Proportional representation, where more than one candidate is elected from a single district according to the proportion of votes received, actively encourages ideologically distinct parties that cannot hope to win a majority but are rewarded adequately if they command only a certain minority percentage. Sharp factional differences are thus carried into the national legislature, there to battle it out with predictable polarizing results. Unless we want our political history to look like that of France”instability, violent upheaval, the rewriting of constitutions and a succession of “republics””we had better stick with our single-member districts and be thankful for the resultant, if relative, homogeneity of our political parties.

So it is a backhanded tribute to the destructive power of ideological distinction in the United States when parties strive to paint their opponents as ideologically bound, knowing that will make them suspect in the eyes of the electorate. Thus the Goldwater and McGovern elections, and to some extent the success of the Republicans the last time (“the L-word”). We do not like the supposed purity of left or right and will vote against any party so tainted. We like our politics slightly fuzzy in the interests of post-electoral harmony. It makes reconciliation, and thus the task of governing, easier.

Advocates of ideological distinction, who don’t like having the sheep and the goats in one flock, may well fancy a showdown in which their side will be the winner, dispatching once and for a generation (at least) the dissemblers whose unmasking will cause the electorate to turn on them. If, inexplicably, the wrong side should win, the losers would at least have the not inconsiderable consolation of remaining noble, pure, and martyred, literally uncompromised.

But successful politics, which makes government possible, is the art of compromise, not of ideological purity. Sharp distinctions preclude such compromise and promote confrontation, to the harm of democracy and the loss of civil discourse. They do not encourage intelligent debate, as is often claimed, but promote distortion and exaggeration”and lasting hostility. Let us, then, leave the neat, clear definitions of political issues to the journals of opinion where they now reside, and let the parties do what they do best, blurring and compromising conflicts for the sake of the general welfare and civil peace.


Thomas Sieger Derr , a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of First Things , teaches religion and ethics at Smith College.

Articles by Thomas Sieger Derr

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