As the Obama administration and the new Congress set about choosing priorities and strategies for policymaking, an important consideration will be the political attitudes of the electorate. That, however, is often as much a matter of perception as reality.
It therefore comes as no surprise that even before Election Day (and with increased fervency once the results were in), status-quo-oriented opinion makers were spreading the meme that “America is a center-right country”:
Jon Meacham in Newsweek:
“America remains a center-right nation… [Obama] will have to govern a nation that is more instinctively conservative than it is liberal—a perennial reality that past Democratic presidents have ignored at their peril.”
Joe Scarborough on MSNBC:
“This country is more conservative than it was when we took over in 1994 after two years of calamitous Democratic rule. It is a center-right country.”
Karl Rove in the WSJ:
“It is a tribute to his skills that Mr. Obama, the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate, won in a country that remains center-right.”
John Boehner in the WaPo:
“America is still a center-right country. This election was neither a referendum in favor of the left’s approach to key issues nor a mandate for big government. Obama campaigned by masking liberal policies with moderate rhetoric to make his agenda more palatable to voters.”
Rich Lowry at NRO:
Republicans are consoling themselves by telling anyone who will listen that we still live in a ‘center-right country.’ They’re right.”
And there are countless others. As David Sirota has documented, media usage of the term spiked dramatically right after the election, and is still going strong.
The problem here is, it’s just not true.
There are obvious motivations for this now almost obsessively repeated talking point. Strategically, it’s an attempt to erect a firewall against what they perceive as a “liberal agenda,” making assertions about what’s politically viable. Rhetorically, it serves to make progressives feel marginalized, convinced through sheer repetition that their fellow citizens are more conservative than themselves. And emotionally, conservatives are still largely stuck in panic mode, trying to figure out what happened and where to turn next, and this notion provides some solace. (Let’s remember, too, that most of the people repeating this meme are not themselves center-right: they’re far right. For them, this no doubt seems like a concession to moderation. It’s certainly a step backward from David Frum’s assertion two years ago that the chief lesson to be drawn from the GOP’s rout in the midterms was that “America remains a very, very, conservative country.” )
Besides, on its face, the claim just seems instinctively believable—at least for anyone whose political memory doesn’t extend back before 1980. After all, didn’t everyone in America love Ronald Reagan?
Well, no, a lot of us didn’t, actually. But even for those who did, that didn’t necessarily signify agreement with a lot of Reagan’s positions on the issues… much less those of his successors.
It’s worth a brief pause here to define our terms. First of all, by “America,” I’m talking about public opinion (as are most of these commentators)—not the stance of the establishment media, nor of government policymakers. There’s a far stronger argument that those institutions are, in fact, predominantly center-right. (Within a day after the election, Nancy Pelosi was already saying, “The country must be governed from the middle”—though she tried to temper that with blather about how “the center is progressive”—while Harry Reid was insisting “This is not a mandate for a political party or an ideology.” They quickly earned the justifiable ire of the netroots, with bloggers like Digby reminding the leadership that “they were elected by a lot of new voters and liberals too and they are going to need very high levels of support for a sustained period of time to get anything done.” With Democrats like these, who needs Republicans?)
Second, while I certainly have longstanding issues with the idea of the stereotypical left-right spectrum, I’ll bow to the mainstream conception of it for purposes of this discussion. That is to say, the right advocates laissez-faire economics, while the left favors more government involvement and economic justice; the right is more militaristic, while the left prefers diplomacy; the right is about traditional values, the left, personal freedom of choice; the right defers to authority, the left questions it; the right is nativist, the left embraces multiculturalism; the right idealizes the past, the left the future; and so on.
Third, when attempting to identify “the center,” we have to be clear about the center of what. If we merely define it as the majority (or plurality) public view on any given issue, then no matter how public opinion shifts, it’s always automatically centrist; that’s not very helpful. On the other hand, if we define it as the midpoint in the range of positions debated by legislators or media pundits, then that range is frequently so narrow that the entire political spectrum would be situated on the right. To make the term meaningful in this discussion, I think it’s best to consider it the midpoint of the entire political spectrum deemed worthy of discussion by both citizens and political theorists in modern industrialized democracies, regardless of what power-brokers think.
By these standards, George W. Bush is unquestionably right-wing (despite some Republicans’ belated attempts to disown him), as is the modern GOP—more decisively so now than at almost any point in the past. Establishment Democrats span a somewhat broader range of views, from right-of-center DLC types over to the middle left.
But what about the public?
Propagators of this “center-right nation” meme like to point to how people self-identify—Rove, for instance, in the article linked above, cites unspecified polls showing that
34% of voters saying they are conservative — unchanged from 2004. Moderates went to 44% from 45% of the electorate, while liberals went to 22% from 21%.
However, researchers have known for decades that the labels people choose to apply to themselves don’t necessarily correspond very well to their actual views on specific issues. Study after study shows that Americans are liberal on most issues, and growing more so over time. I’ve mentioned this before, but the details bear some examination.
One of the most revealing documents on this is the Pew Research Center’s 2007 report on “Political Values and Core Attitudes” over the preceding 20 years. Among other things, it shows that:
- 69% of Americans believe that government has a responsibility to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves, and that it should guarantee every citizen sufficient food and shelter
- 66% favor government funded health coverage for all citizens
- 65% believe corporate profits are too high
- 84% support a higher minimum wage
- 83% favor stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment
- 69% believe conservation should take precedence over oil drilling as a policy priority
- 66% have no objection to homosexual public school teachers, 60% support gays in the military, and numbers are steadily increasing (although not yet majorities) in favor of gay adoption and same-sex marriage
- 56% oppose new restrictions on abortion
- 56% have a favorable opinion of labor unions
- The percentage that believes in “peace through military strength” is dropping, while the percentage that prefers diplomacy is increasing—to a point of virtual parity (49-47), compared to a 54-50 margin in 1987 (and a spike of 62-34 in 2002)
Pew also shows that religious intensity and associated attitudes are diminishing—corroborated by another study (.pdf), conducted in 2006 by the Center for American Progress. CAP found, for instance, that 67% of Americans consider religious freedom “critical” to their concept of America, vs. only 30% who say that about Judeo-Christian faith. Fully 80% have positive feelings about stem-cell research.
The perennial American National Election Studies also offer similar findings. For instance, as of 2004 (the most recent ANES data):
- 78% support an equal role for women in society
- 66% oppose organized prayer in public schools
- 61% reject Biblical literalism
- 58% want the government to be doing more to solve our problems, not less—and more than twice as many (43-20) want more public services and spending rather than less
Through all this, while it remains true that more people identify themselves as “conservative” than “liberal” (although not as many as consider themselves “moderate”), party identification favors the Democrats over the Republicans: 49-41 in 2004 according to ANES, 50-35 in 2007 according to Pew.
Media Matters (the watchdog organization founded by reformed right-wing hatchet man David Brock) has assembled a wide-ranging report surveying all of these data sets, and a few others as well (for instance, according to Gallup, 66% of Americans consider taxes on upper-income people to be too low). Media Matters writes that “it is difficult to find an issue on which the public is more conservative now than it was 20 years ago,” and comes to the inescapable conclusion that the United States has a consistent and growing progressive majority.
In other words, the “center-right nation” meme simply has no basis in reality. It’s not so much conventional wisdom as conventional wishful thinking. At best it’s a delusion, at worst a deliberate deception.
It does make one thing clear, though: those pundits and pols who don’t understand why Obama won are, to a person, woefully out of touch with what’s actually going on in America. Obama didn’t run as a “center-right” candidate, he ran against one, on an unapologetically progressive agenda.
They called him a radical, a socialist, accused him of wanting to “spread the wealth”—and people still voted for him. The McCarthy-style tactics didn’t work this time. Even voters who are “center-right” obviously deemed a shift to the left preferable to more government from the far right. His victory was an unequivocal rejection and repudiation of what “conservative” government has done to this country.
The question now is how he will govern. Obviously, one of the intentions of this propaganda onslaught is to fence him in, pressure him to step back from the positions he ran on and forget why people voted for him. So, as I’ve written before, if the change we want is a government that reflects and responds to our actual views and priorities, it’s incumbent on us as citizens to make clear that the “center-right” propagandists do not speak for us: that, in fact, they are radically out of touch.
Fortunately, there’s one other way they’re out of touch: they don’t control the mainstream media nearly as much as they used to. People have seen this year that the professional pundits have been pretty consistently wrong about, well, almost everything… and they’re not taking all the talking points at face value any more.
Thus, there’s been room for pushback, and it’s already happening. Even the Meacham piece in Newsweek felt constrained to include a counterpoint from historian (and fellow U of C alum) Rick Perlstein, pointing to the social science data I’ve been describing. And the same issue included a contrasting piece by Jonathan Alter—a somewhat tepid one, granted, in that it merely deemed most Americans “pragmatic centrists,” but it also recognized the transition that’s under way and underscored that
The question for the new president then becomes not whether he’s moving too fast but too slow. The test becomes whether he can use the powers of government to act on behalf of the American people. That is a fundamentally liberal idea.
Meanwhile the Internet is playing a role (just as it did all through the campaign) that increasingly threatens to eclipse the traditional media. Online pushback against the “center-right” meme has already been widespread and forceful.
Even some conservatives are grappling with reality. Tod Lindberg, a veteran of the Washington Times, the Weekly Standard, and the Hoover Institution, writes in a Washington Post op-ed that
It isn’t true. Or at least, not anymore. If you’d asked me a year ago whether the United States is really a center-right nation, I would have said yes… This month’s drubbing is just the latest sign that the country’s political center of gravity is shifting from center-right to center-left. Republicans who fail to grasp this could be lost in the wilderness for years.
America may not be as left-of-center as Sweden, or even Canada… and institutionally, our Constitution is designed to keep the government conservative on the most basic level, in the sense that it can only change course relatively slowly… but the American people are by no means “center-right,” and the future we’re looking for lies in a leftward direction.
Yes, we’re “pragmatic,” in that our main desire right now—in the wake of the glaring failures of conservative rule, living out its ideological conviction that government couldn’t be effective—is for a government that “gets things done,” but pragmatism is not a conservative value, and the things we want done are unmistakably progressive. Far from Obama needing to be wary about overreaching (much less worry about appeasing the likes of Jon Meacham), right now it’s the GOP that should be wary about being perceived as obstructionist.