A Center-Right Country?


I hear all the time, including on this blog, occasionally, that America is a center-right country; that liberals and Democrats have to be careful not to go too far with their wild-eyed plans, because a basically conservative electorate will punish them for it; that their fundamental disconnect with “real Americans” leaves them on a short policy leash.

I keep hearing this asserted (the latest courtesy of Jon Meacham at Newsweek — famed for its flaming left-wing bias), but I never see any data for it adduced.  I’m not saying there isn’t any.  I’m just saying I’ve never seen it.  If it exists, I’d be interested in seeing it.  Meacham’s evidence isn’t data on Americans’ actual positions on the issues; it’s highly compressed historical anecdotes.  David Brooks makes a somewhat oblique version of the same argument, through the device of his very own “Joe the Plumber,” “Patio Man.”

Meanwhile, this guy does a pretty good job of making the counter-argument, assuming the polling data he cites is valid.  (At least he cites some.)  The key point(s), for me:

On foreign policy, on economic policy, on social policy, on just about everything, it’s the progressive position that is more popular. The median voter in 2008 is pro-choice, supports civil unions for gay Americans (a position that seemed insanely radical only a decade ago), rejects the Bush foreign policy, supported the recent increase in the minimum wage, wants strong environmental protections, favors reasonable restrictions on gun sales, thinks the wealthy and corporations don’t pay their fair share of taxes, and wants the government to guarantee universal health coverage.

What’s the countervailing data?  If anybody can provide links to it, I’d appreciate it.


20 Responses to “A Center-Right Country?”

  1. DeJon05 Says:

    I have nothing to back up my opinion, but I’ll give it anyway because I’m an American and that’s what we do.

    ISTM, that at the moment, the ebbing and flowing macro-opinion of the country is ebbing (or maybe it’s flowing) as far to the left as it will in a reaction to the epic failure of the Bush Presidency.

    My data is tantamount to my moist finger in the air… no, not that finger.

  2. Sandi Says:

    I think it basically depends on what you mean by “conservative.” I think that since it’s just a more popular word than “liberal,” if you ask people “are you liberal or conservative?” it’s predictable that you’ll get 40% saying conservative and 20% saying liberal. But without explanation of what the words mean, those numbers have no significance.

    I think that most people consider themselves to be moderate, and a large percentage of those you and I would think of as left-leaning were we to ask them questions issue by issue. Some moderates consider themselves conservative, even though we might not think of them as such. (Of course this is all within the American context — I think part of the point of these articles is that American political discourse is more to the right overall than is European political discourse, to which I say, duh). In terms of the hardcore, anti-gay, creationist, all government is bad (unless they’re wiretapping or giving tax cuts to the rich) folks, I have concluded they will always be with us, and those people make up a chunk of the “40% conservative” number.

    The other factor here is generational, and it will be interesting to see how that plays out. Millenials (or Gen Y) are pretty overwhelmingly in favor of civil rights for gays and lesbians, yet not overwhelmingly pro-choice. It will be interesting to see how their views evolve on economic issues.

    Anyway, I see where Meacham and Brooks are coming from, but again, you have to break it down issue by issue for their statements to really mean anything. I think we’ve certainly moved to the left of where we were in the past ten years on many issues, gay rights and universal health care among them.

  3. urbino Says:

    I’d buy that, Deej, but much of the data Waldman cites goes back 5-10 yrs.

  4. urbino Says:

    Waldman makes essentially those same points, Sandi. Polls indicate a lot of people don’t even know what “conservative” and “liberal” mean, and I think it was 30% couldn’t correctly identify which party was generally associated with which word.

  5. Joe Says:

    I’ve just got two data points off the top of my head.

    1. Bush getting re-elected in 2004 despite the significant media and leftwing backlash against the Iraq War. How is that a refutation of Bush’s foreign policy? Do you think the success of the surge somehow changes that in 2008?

    2. If the public is in favor of civil unions, why does it take judges to allow them, when laws to allow them NEVER pass?

    Look at the actual election results vice polling data. That’s where the truth is. You’ll see the truth on 4 Nov. If Obama gets more than 50% of the vote, you may finally have the answer you are looking for.

  6. urbino Says:

    Except election results generally aren’t very specific. Bush winning in 2004 tells you people preferred him to Kerry, but it tells you nothing about why. Was it because people liked Bush’s foreign policy better, as you suggest, or was it because people just didn’t like John Kerry?

    The polls cited in the links above indicate it wasn’t because most people like Bush’s foreign policy. Even fewer like it now, despite the surge. If election results were the key, then we’d have to say people do dislike Bush’s foreign policy, since in the only election since 2004, people voted overwhelmingly for Democrats.

    I don’t think there’s any reasonable way to meaningfully reason from the 2004 presidential outcome — or any personal election outcome, as opposed to proposition votes — back to what policies most people support. That outcome is, as the sociologists say, extremely overdetermined.

    Your second point is a good question (although didn’t MA pass a law recognizing them?). You’re right that the polling data doesn’t square with the proposition outcomes thus far. I don’t know the solution to that.

    If Obama gets more than 50% of the vote, you may finally have the answer you are looking for.

    The only answer I’m looking for right now is what the basis is for all these claims that America is a center-right country.

  7. DeJon05 Says:

    Good to hear from you, Joe.

    A bit off topic, but I’m wondering what you think of Palin since she’s shown off her new federal government spit-shine?

  8. Whitney Says:

    Oooooh. Can I write the ballot? Multiple choice or rank items following: “Why did you vote for this candidate?” Then we use us some Item Response Theory to evaluate the data. That’s some good stuff there, y’all. I mean, I could play with that for literally years, and still not have an answer for ya. 🙂

    Either way it goes, I’m ready for Jan 1. Just get the new president in office. Quit all this bitchin’.

  9. Whitney Says:

    Not from you guys….from the media in general. Sorry if I implied otherwise.

  10. urbino Says:

    Too late, Whit. We know you really meant us.

    Harsh, dear. Harsh.

  11. alsturgeon Says:

    Yeah, but bitchin’ is good now’days, isn’t it? This is one bitchin’ blog.

  12. Terry A. Says:


  13. DeJon05 Says:

    I admit that I’m providing a link that doesn’t relate to JU’s original post. But for a few reasons I just tack it in the comments here.

    To whet your appetite it comes from one of my fave blogs… The Wall Street Journal Law Blog. The pithy post mentions two conservative law profs who have publicly stated they will be voting for Sen. Obama.

    Further, one of the profs teaches at our very own Al Sturgeon’s law school, Pepperdine.

    Al, I’d be interested to hear your “view from the ground” on this one. And I’m also curious if this election is gonna be close or not.


    And here’s the link: http://tinyurl.com/SortaRelatedBlogLink

  14. Sandi Says:

    I think it will be closer than it looks from the recent batch of polls that I read about today. It will probably be a squeaker. I would love a landslide, but I’ll take 50% + 1 if it’s the right 1. I assume the Pepperdine professor you’re referring to is Kmiec (sp?) — I heard him on NPR the other day discussing his support of Obama. An amazing number of Republicans are crossing the aisle this time.

  15. Joe Says:

    It’s only “amazing” because these guys get media attention. Do you think that there weren’t prominent Dems that crossed over in the previous two elections? Sure there were, but they didn’t trumpet the fact or get the media attention that the current “Obamacons” are getting.

    If you ask me, the “conservatives” that are coming out now to endorse Obama have the stench of “frontrunners”. The timing is suspect. Why didn’t they come out in support of Obama months ago, or after Palin was first announced, or when McCain had the slight bounce and lead after the Republican convention? That certainly would have helped their chosen candidate more at that point. No… they only come out now that polls are consistently tending in Obama’s direction. You’ll also note that these conservatives tend to cite “temperament” and “judgment” as the deciding factors for them vice policy. And of course Obama has now come out and said that there is a place for Powell in his administration.


  16. alsturgeon Says:

    I’m afraid I don’t have much to add, other than the fun fact that Martin Sheen was at the law school a week or so ago (he wrote the intro to Kmiec’s book, and they were filming something for something). And Jody’s says the two new buddies are having a book signing at a Malibu bookshop Sunday afternoon. We may go just for kicks.

    Kmiec did a super cool presentation during our orientation, and he gave the intro to Clarence Thomas on his visit (they go way back). Other than that, I never see him at the law school. Guess he’s been busy writing and such.

    His specialty is constitutional law, and I think I’d like to be in his class. But I really doubt he and Obama share the same view of con law.

  17. Terry A. Says:

    I think Mikey has history with Martin Sheen.

  18. urbino Says:

    Prob’ly calls him Marty.

  19. michaellasley Says:

    Some of the Republicans crossing the line probably are doing it because they smell blood…but the media attetion they’re getting is not the *only* reason it’s amazing. I mean, Powell’s endorsement…the one-time Secretary of State for the sitting president endorsing a nominee from the opposing party? That’s not amazing only because it received media attention.

    Several prominent conservative writers immediately jumped off of McCain’s express when he chose Palin. Not everyone is abandoning McCain at the end…some have been doing it for a while now.

    Kmiec, for instance, was for Obama a long, long time ago (last spring or winter or earlier, I believe)….so he wasn’t joining the bandwagon.

    I once knocked Marty over at the Malibu Shell station. I had to catch him before he actually fell to the ground. He’s much shorter than one would imagine from the screen. And he didn’t seem to appreciate my having knocked him over (although he wasn’t mean about it or anything).

  20. Sandi Says:

    I can’t pretend to know what’s in these guys’ heads, but I don’t think the temperament issue is unimportant. I would be a terrible leader, of a nation or of a high school chess club, because I don’t have the right temperament for it. The best leaders are calm under pressure, don’t get carried away by emotions, and thus are able to utilize their intellects in any given situation. (A first-class intellect is the other prerequisite for being a great leader.) Barack Obama is that kind of leader, and so in addition to agreeing with his policy proposals, I have a great deal of confidence in his ability to be an excellent president.

    I personally don’t understand crossing the aisle — I can’t imagine a circumstance under which I would do it. My point was just that I am surprised that, in a party that has had such an emphasis on loyalty and discipline, so many prominent people would come forward publicly and support a Democratic candidate.

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