Fractured Politics: Senator Ted Cruz at The Cambridge Union

Felicity Garvey 4 December 2020
Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons

Senator Ted Cruz, speaking to the Union remotely, began his talk by referring to the intense divisions we see in politics today. He called upon students to “focus on ideas, focus on issues, focus on substance, but also engage with each other as people”, later adding that “one of the unfortunate realities of public discourse today is that an awful lot of folks engage in reductionist caricature. Viewing anyone who disagrees as stupid, or evil. And that is generally not the case… and it’s not productive if you ever want to actually convince someone of something.” This was a theme carried through Senator Cruz’s talk – wherein he called for people to “engage on substance, […] engage with respect, not dealing with ad hominem attacks, not dealing with personal insults.” The subject was certainly apt, though it presented a level of optimism that seemed a far cry from recent events surrounding the US election.

Ted Cruz is well-established in US Republican politics. He is a senator for Texas, a seat he has held since 2013. He ran for president in 2016, competing against Donald Trump for the Republican nomination, and while an incredibly vocal critic of Trump during that race, has since become one of Trump’s most important supporters. He played a particularly significant role in supporting President Trump in the senate during his nomination of a new Supreme Court judge following the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg – a controversial action during an election year. Senator Cruz argued in September that the president had the right to make this appointment, saying that “This nomination is why Donald Trump was elected” [1]. He espoused the significance of the Senate in this task, having previously stated: “I think it is critical that the Senate takes up and confirms that successor before Election Day” [2]. Interestingly, his position on the president’s role in nominating Supreme Court Justices in the final year of their presidency has changed markedly since Obama’s incumbency, at which point he had argued that the people, not the president, through the upcoming election should decide [3].

While the recent appointment of Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court was not a theme raised at the Union’s event, Senator Cruz did have the opportunity to elaborate on the significance of the Senate’s role in America’s political system – which he readily acknowledged was not a “pure democracy”. He elucidated that while the House of Representatives is the People’s House, in his view, the Senate is the “saucer that cools the passions in the teacup… it gives time for deliberation.” It was on this note that Senator Cruz answered a question regarding his current view on filibustering. Senator Cruz once spoke for over 21 hours in a filibuster intended to delay voting on, and passionately argue against the Affordable Care Act (better known as ‘Obamacare’). While he acknowledged that a filibuster was not always the best course of action, he did note that “the filibuster has a virtue – to make sure you’re not making rash decisions and it has often prevented massive expansions of government power”, as well as later commenting that “In many ways, I consider myself a ‘radical democrat’ in the following sense: I think the will of the people… we should respect it and listen to it, within the framework of the constitution, to be sure.” Senator Cruz also spoke about his understanding of people’s frustrations with politics today – namely that “People are frustrated at politicians lying to them.” He added, “We’ve all experienced politicians that don’t tell us the truth, that are interested in things other than the public good. I think much of the frustration with politics is that elected officials break their promises.”

Senator Cruz once spoke for over 21 hours in a filibuster intended to delay voting on, and passionately argue against the Affordable Care Act (better known as ‘Obamacare’).

For a talk in which the senator repeatedly mentioned his love of debating, he was required to do very little of it, as none of the pre-prepared questions tackled his more controversial views, which include vocal climate change denial, calling same-sex marriage “among the darkest hours of our nation” and his support of the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents. Rather, Senator Cruz spent his time speaking to the Union elaborating on topics such as his passion for school choice legislation, noting “I think school choice is the civil rights issue of this century”. Even critics of school choice legislation might be inclined to agree that it represents a civil rights issue, albeit for a very different reason from Senator Cruz. While Senator Cruz’s discussion of the subject was far more an exposition than defence, it is worth noting that – as reported in the Financial Times – ‘school choice policies […] have exacerbated exclusion’ [4], a claim that has been supported by research from Brookings [5].

Senator Cruz’s opening call for civility and debate continued through his talk, as he asked students to “recognise that people of goodwill, of good intelligence, can disagree” with them, and asked them to consider how they would feel if their own mother had a view that was diametrically opposed to their own. His tone shifted somewhat later in the talk, however, as he referred to the threat of “torch-wielding angry left.” When asked about his thoughts on working with President-Elect Joe Biden – whose victory he has publicly disputed –  he remarked that he found the man quite affable, however that “the degree to which we see bipartisan cooperation is likely to depend dramatically on what we see in the Georgia runoffs.” He elaborated: “I think right now the democratic party is captured by the extremes of that party, captured by the angry left, really driven by the Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warrens and AOCs in the party, and I think if there is a Democratic majority in the House and the Senate and the White House, Biden will have an incredibly difficult time saying no to the extreme left.”

“Ideas have the potential to change the world… The great debate that has raged across civilizations is the debate between free enterprise and socialism. What economic system maximised human well-being.” Senator Cruz notes that he firmly believes it is “free enterprise” that can best achieve this, whereas he believes socialism “has a very sorry record of not succeeding, of universalising poverty.” In response to a question from an anonymous student who identified themselves as having lived under “Chinese Communist Party Tyranny”, Cruz argued that, “I think confronting the communist leadership of China is the single greatest geopolitical threat facing the United States, facing the United Kingdom, over the next century.” He spoke for some minutes regarding “the evil and brutality of communism”, referring to his family’s own history in Cuba, China’s handling of the coronavirus and oppression of the Uyghurs.

An institution that is known for lively debate necessarily becomes more sterile in the remote, socially-distanced time of the pandemic – speakers are not subject to the live reactions of an audience or the points of order that may be called in person. This is perhaps why Senator Ted Cruz’s visit to the Union was quite so uneventful, as the prepared questions failed to address his hard-right views and homophobia

As the closing note of his talk, Cruz shared an anecdote about his own time at University – specifically, his time competing in the World Debating Championship in Ireland when his teammate responded to a question with “póg mo thóin” (That is, ‘kiss my arse’) to raucous laughter.  The comment was, perhaps, in homage to the Union’s own long history of debate. The Cambridge Union during the time of COVID-19, however, presents quite a different environment from the norm. An institution that is known for lively debate necessarily becomes more sterile in the remote, socially-distanced time of the pandemic – speakers are not subject to the live reactions of an audience or the points of order that may be called in person. This is perhaps why Senator Ted Cruz’s visit to the Union was quite so uneventful, as the prepared questions failed to address his hard-right views and homophobia [6]. The Union’s return to the chamber and the spontaneous, un-vetted questions from engaged students which that will bring, is therefore something to look forward to.

[1] Desjardins, L. (2020). What every Republican senator has said about filling a Supreme Court vacancy in an election year. PBS News. Available: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/what-every-republican-senator-has-said-about-filling-a-supreme-court-vacancy-in-an-election-year. Last accessed 2 Dec 2020.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Currid-Halkett, E. (2020). Playing up the US urban-rural divide misses the real problem. The Financial Times. Available: https://www.ft.com/content/f89f1980-202c-4dee-a348-c27f44a68a20. Last accessed 2 Dec 2020.
[5] Whitehurst, G. (2017). New evidence on school choice and racially segregated schools. Economic Studies at Brookings, Evidence Speaks Reports, Vol 2, #33. Available at: https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/whitehurst-report.pdf
[6] Revesz, R. (2016). Ted Cruz supports one of the most controversial and discriminatory anti-LGBT laws in recent history. The Independent. Available: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/north-carolina-ted-cruz-supports-one-most-controversial-and-discriminatory-anti-lgbt-laws-recent-history-a6985961.html. Last accessed 3 Dec 2020.