Opinion and Forefront

FERGUSON: Mourdock win signals danger for deliberation

May 19, 2012

Margaret FergusonIn 2008, Indiana voters had the highly unusual opportunity to actually influence the presidential nomination process. Since our primaries are so late, one candidate nearly always has the nomination sewn up before we have a chance to head to the polls.

Despite early appearances to the contrary, this happened again this year as Mitt Romney’s opponents had all fallen by the wayside before Indiana’s primary election on May 8. Given the lack of competition in the presidential primary, nearly all eyes and media coverage were addressed toward the contest between Sen. Richard Lugar and state Treasurer Richard Mourdock.

Lugar hasn’t had any real competition (from either Democrats or Republicans) for about 30 years. The senator has served the state nobly, amassing the power that comes with seniority and developing an expertise in international affairs and the position of ranking member on the prestigious Foreign Relations Committee.

The senator earned a reputation as a statesman. He stands out among his colleagues as a rare honest broker, willing and able to work across party lines to build coalitions to accomplish his goals for the state.

Meanwhile, though, he failed to maintain a residence in the state and inexplicably continued to use his former address when casting his own ballot. Under normal circumstances, such missteps as this would be noteworthy but not catastrophic. But these are not normal times.

The state was deluged by outside money, notably from Tea Party groups and other Super PACs with deep pockets, and a nearly obsessive desire to oust long-serving members of Congress. One of these groups famously (and ridiculously) called Lugar a liberal.

Could the longest-serving Republican in the U.S. Senate actually be a thinly veiled liberal, serving the interests of a Washington elite while ignoring Hoosier values? Hardly. But that doesn’t change the fact that the movement against the senator struck a chord among enough primary voters to defeat the senator and replace him with a “real” conservative, Richard Mourdock.

Observers from across the country—from across the world, actually—have struggled to make sense of this in the last few days. I have done the same.

Most obviously, the state (and the country) is experiencing anti-incumbency fervor. This is one of the cycles of American politics. It will pass.

More worryingly for the future of our country, however, our politics is marked by a demand for ideological purity. Compromise is viewed as weakness, and working with the other party is evidence of disloyalty rather than diplomacy. This is a sorry state of affairs and it will inevitably lead to an utter inability to accomplish anything in Washington.

A student in my undergraduate course on the American presidency wrote that “political ideology acts as a cognitive retardant that prevents an individual from being able to reason, rationalize or reflect from an objective perspective.”

It’s true that ideology is a useful heuristic, helping people make sense of a complicated world with little time or impulse to gather a great deal of information. Those facts aside, my student is exactly right. A slavish devotion to purity in ideology leads to an inability to get anything done and to the demonization of those who do not walk in lock step with one’s own philosophy.

This is extraordinarily dangerous for our politics and ultimately destructive for the Republican Party—the party most in the throes of this demand for ideological fealty.

I have come to believe that those advocating absolute ideological purity actually know their refusal to cooperate with (or even deign to listen to) anyone who disagrees with them will inevitably mean our governments will fail to grapple with the great needs of the day. The gridlock they create will provide these same individuals further “evidence” that government is the problem, rather than the solution, and our country, our people and our economy will suffer.•

• Ferguson is an associate professor of political science in the School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI with expertise in state politics. Views expressed here are the writer’s. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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