Did America turn right?

The media are proclaiming the Republican victory on November 2 as a triumph for the Tea Party. But the public's views don't reflect the Tea Party's right-wing positions.

WE DIDN'T have to know the exact outcome of the 2010 midterm elections to know what the media's analysis of the results--and their unsolicited advice to President Barack Obama and the Democrats--would be.

Columnist: Lance Selfa

Lance Selfa Lance Selfa is the author of The Democrats: A Critical History, a socialist analysis of the Democratic Party, and editor of The Struggle for Palestine, a collection of essays by leading solidarity activists. He is on the editorial board of the International Socialist Review.

First, they would say that the election proves America is a "center-right" nation. Second, they would say that Obama and the Democrats would have to move to the "center" (translation: to the right) to have any hope of being politically viable in the future.

Like clockwork, the mainstream media came through. The Washington Post's Dan Balz, commenting on Obama's November 3 mea culpa press conference, said the president was "unwilling, it seemed, to consider whether he had moved too far to the left for many voters who thought he was a centrist when he ran in 2008."

The New York Times' Peter Baker, waxing on the deeper meaning of the elections, wondered: "Was this the natural and unavoidable backlash in a time of historic economic distress, or was it a repudiation of a big-spending activist government?" Most pundits, it seemed, had chosen Baker's latter explanation.

They got no argument from Obama. His press conference was a pathetic display of further retreats from long-held positions and offers to work with the Republicans who oppose him as a matter of course. "I think people started looking at all this and it felt as if government was getting much more intrusive into people's lives than they were accustomed to," Obama said. "We thought it was necessary, but I'm sympathetic to folks who looked at it and said this is looking like potential overreach."

There you have it from the President of the United States--most people in the U.S. are suspicious of the government and care deeply about the deficit.

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THE REASON this argument refuses to die is that powerful interests are tied to it. It gives the bipartisan political establishment--which is planning to shift mainstream politics to the right--a seemingly "popular" explanation for their intentions. They're only carrying out the will of the American people, don't you know?

In reality, support for Republicans in Election 2010 was much more of a repudiation of the Democrats' inability to meet the challenges of the economic crisis. In the months leading up to the vote, opinion polls consistently showed that the only political forces more unpopular than Obama and the Democrats in Congress are the Republicans and the Tea Party.

What support the Republicans did manage to gain is in spite of their stands on issues, not because of them. Even given that the midterm electorate was much more conservative than the much larger electorate of the 2008 presidential election, it split right down the middle on whether the health care reform bill should be repealed or retained and improved, according to exit polls. By a 52-39 percent margin, a majority of midterm voters favored doing away with George W. Bush's tax cuts for the rich.

Moreover, while 39 percent of midterm voters said the government should concentrate on deficit reduction, 37 percent said the government should spend more money to create jobs. Despite the fact the electorate was exceedingly hostile to the Democrats and to Obama, it was still more likely to blame Wall Street and Bush, rather than Obama, for the economic crisis.

These results come from a sample of people who are much more conservative than the American public, as was shown by months of preceding opinion poll data documenting the "enthusiasm gap" that depressed liberal and Democrat turnout and energized the Republican base. The gap was so big that the differences between polls of registered voters and polls of "likely voters" turned narrow Democratic leads into Republican victories in several important races.

The greater turnout of conservative Republican voters no doubt played a central role in the victory for right-wing positions on several significant ballot measures, like one abolishing affirmative action in Arizona or the defeat of a California proposition legalizing marijuana. In Iowa, the three state Supreme Court justices who ruled in favor of marriage equality were removed from office after a vicious campaign led by the National Organization for Marriage.

While an election is one way to register public opinion, it's a very blunt instrument. This is true about many measures of public opinion, framed as they are by the choices on offer.

For example, if you look at the "horse-race" support-or-oppose polls about the Democrats' health care reform law passed earlier this year, you find that more people oppose reform than support it. But when you look below the surface, it turns out that one in five people opposed the law because it doesn't go far enough in changing the system. If you add together the people who support the health care law with those who want genuine reform, the supposed conservative anti-reform majority becomes a minority.

Likewise, on the question of immigration, a majority of people says it favors the racist SB 1070 law in Arizona. But a majority of people under 30 opposes the bill. And even most of those who say they support SB 1070 actually favor a "path to citizenship" for immigrants who have been living and working in this country for years. This is the opposite of the right-wing position on immigration.

The problem, in other words, isn't a monolithic conservative population, but a dysfunctional political system that can muster support for bashing immigrants and cutting "entitlements," but can't muster the political will to create a genuine national health care program.

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DON'T EXPECT that analysis from the mainstream media. They're satisfied to proclaim the Republican victory as a triumph for the Tea Party phenomenon. The Tea Party has gone from a ragtag collection of local groups to a national force in the Republican Party on the strength of millions in corporate funding, and help from the Republican establishment and its media arm Fox News.

But the public's views don't reflect the Tea Party's opposition to government spending or social safety net programs. "Despite 2010's political rhetoric, academic and media surveys from 2007 through today repeatedly find that most voters want government protection from economic hardship and continuity of core programs, such as Social Security, Medicare, in education and infrastructure spending," reports the liberal advocacy group Project Vote.

Mass mobilizations matching or dwarfing the largest Tea Party gatherings--from protests for LGBT equality in Washington, D.C., in 2009 to the mobilizations in Washington and Arizona for immigrant rights this year--got no media coverage or corporate support. And when the Jon Stewart-Stephen Colbert "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" got a huge turnout of people reacting against the outrages of the right, establishment media figures expressed shock.

In reality, there's a significant gap between the attitudes of the rightward-shifting political establishment and the views of ordinary Americans.

For instance, somewhere around 60 percent of Americans oppose the war in Afghanistan, and even larger numbers continue to oppose the war in Iraq. But those opinions don't register in Washington's bipartisan commitment to both wars.

Sociologist Charles Derber, analyzing an April 2010 Pew Center poll on Americans' political attitudes, summed it up: "On nearly every major issue, from support for the minimum wage and unions, preference for diplomacy over force, deep concern for the environment, belief that big business is corrupting democracy, and support for many major social programs including Social Security and Medicare, the progressive position has been strong and relatively stable."

It's worth remembering as well that in the last 18 months, two national polls, including one by the conservative Rasmussen Reports, found that around one in three Americans had a positive view of "socialism." Compare that to the 18 percent of Americans who identified themselves as Tea Party supporters in a New York Times/CBS survey of the movement.

Who would have guessed that in "center-right America," potential supporters of socialism outnumber Tea Party supporters by two to one?

The next two years will challenge the millions of people who want genuine change to fight for it.

The stagnating economic recovery will continue to leave millions unemployed. The foreclosure crisis will grind on, and so will two wars. The scapegoating of immigrants and Muslims will continue to be the last refuge of politicians and hate-mongers who have no real answers to the crisis facing ordinary Americans. Meanwhile, a bipartisan establishment will continue to try to impose austerity on working people.

That's why now isn't the time to mourn the election results. Now is the time to mobilize and organize against the agenda of austerity and scapegoating.