A “center-right nation”?
The punditocracy that grew up over the last few decades was schooled in an era of conservative dominance that has come to a close. But old habits die hard.
NO MATTER how much social change takes place in the U.S., there always seems to be a well-paid cohort of Washington blowhards ready to declare that things really haven't changed much.
That's because, they say, the U.S. is a "center-right" country whose population isn't interested in those left-wing European (or even Canadian) ideas like national health care. Consider the following:
Jon Meacham, Newsweek editor: "It's just this side of possible that Obama will be able to govern what I believe is largely a center-right country."
NBC elder statesmen Tom Brokaw: "And this country, even with the election of Barack Obama last night, remains a very centered country, or maybe even center-right in a lot of places."
And, not to be outdone, Republican strategist Karl Rove: "Barack Obama understands this is a center-right country, and he smartly and wisely ran a campaign that emphasized that." (Question for Rove: If you believe this, why were you advising John McCain to attack Obama as a terrorist and socialist?)
Of course, many of these were the same people who assured us after the 2004 election that the Republicans were on their way to building a permanent majority in Washington. But let's put aside their failures as prognosticators and ask if their premise that the U.S. is a "center-right" society is even true.
THERE ARE several ways to look at the question.
First, there is the partisan split in the electorate. Given that most mainstream commentators equate support for the Democrats with support for the "center-left," it's worth noting that the Democrats represented 39 percent of the electorate on November 5, compared to 32 percent identifying themselves as Republicans. The Associated Press called this result "the biggest partisan shift in a generation."
Beyond 2008, it's also worth noting that the Democrats have won the popular vote over the Republicans in four of the last five presidential elections.
In his review of the 2008 turnout, Curtis Gans of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate pointed out: "Democratic turnout increased by 2.6 percentage points from 28.7 percent of eligible [voting age Americans] to 31.3 percent. It was the seventh straight increase in the Democratic share of the eligible vote since the party's share dropped to 22.7 percent of eligibles in 1980."
If anything, this is evidence of a nation moving away from the "center-right."
Second, there are the policy preferences of Americans, as expressed in opinion polls. Here again, there isn't much support for the idea that the U.S. is comfortably "center-right." As a March 2007 Pew Research Center for the People and the Press report on social attitudes over the last 20 years explained:
Increased public support for the social safety net, signs of growing public concern about income inequality, and a diminished appetite for assertive national security policies have improved the political landscape for the Democrats as the 2008 presidential campaign gets under way.
At the same time, many of the key trends that nurtured the Republican resurgence in the mid-1990s have moderated, according to Pew's longitudinal measures of the public's basic political, social and economic values. The proportion of Americans who support traditional social values has edged downward since 1994, while the proportion of Americans expressing strong personal religious commitment also has declined modestly.
A Democracy Corps poll conducted after the 2008 election found that voters most consistently chose the more progressive of the two choices when they were given a "liberal" and a "conservative" description of a problem and solution on issues like trade, health care and Social Security.
When asked to list in order of priority a list of policies, voters put ones like "repealing the Bush tax cuts" for the rich, providing affordable health care and ending the war in Iraq at the top of their lists.
Third, there is the evidence from the 2008 election campaign. Despite the fact that the two parties of American business can be ideologically flexible, the contest between McCain and Obama took on some ideological tones.
Obama was fond of saying that his election would be the "final verdict" on a failed conservative philosophy. In his convention acceptance speech, he mocked the Republicans' "ownership society" idea as a cover for telling working people that "you're on your own." On the other side, McCain tried to rally his base by warning against Obama's "redistributionist" ideas--even calling Obama's proposals "socialist."
Even though McCain's attacks on Obama were based on grotesque exaggerations and fabrications, they still didn't do him any good. When the votes were tallied--even in supposed "red" states like Indiana and North Carolina--it appeared that the public chose the "socialist" Obama over the tax-cutting, anti-redistributionist McCain.
The exit polls showed that 51 percent of the voters said they wanted government "to do more" rather than less, and 76 of that group voted for Obama. In contrast, 43 percent said it thought that government was doing "too much," and 71 percent of them voted for McCain.
While these facts shouldn't lead us to conclude that the U.S. is unambiguously left-leaning, we can say for sure that they contradict the claim that the U.S. population leans to the "center right."
FOR THOSE who continue to insist that the U.S. is a "center-right" nation, at least one of these two things must be true: either they didn't observe the same election that the rest of us did; or they did observe it, and have decided to ignore it.
Of these two choices, the latter is the most likely explanation. The entire elite punditocracy that has grown up over the last two to three decades was schooled in an era of conservative dominance that has come to a close. But old habits die hard.
By the same token, many of these pundits are mouthpieces for an American ruling class that has done quite well for itself in the last political era. It has no desire to see the kind of social change and redress of inequality that millions of Americans want to see. But because advocating openly for the rich is somewhat frowned upon, they appeal to the democratic notion that social change isn't possible or desirable because the majority of Americans is predisposed against it.
Many of these voices for do-nothingism come from within the Democratic Party itself--and they are vying to define what's "possible" under an Obama administration.
Those of us who want to see fundamental social change are going to have to organize to demand it. And we would do well to ignore those who tell us "no we can't" because the U.S. is a center-right nation.