Closer look shows 'center-right' nation leans to left

The Baltimore Sun

America is a center-right nation.

This is the argument being peddled by conservatives, ranging from Michael Gerson to Karl Rove, who seem to be in denial after Barack Obama's election, which will give Democrats control over the entire federal government. They also have majorities among state governors and state legislatures.

Never mind that Mr. Obama's victory margin was larger than George W. Bush's in 2004. Ignore the new Democratic congressional majorities, larger than any the Republicans could boast earlier this decade. Disregard the fact that on issue after issue - from Iraq to health care, from torture to abortion - majorities of Americans reject conservative positions.

"Before the election, Republicans argued that Obama's proposals on issues such as the economy and health care were so radical, they amount to socialism," liberal commentator Paul Waldman wrote recently. "Now some of those same people argue that Obama ran as a centrist and therefore has no mandate to pursue progressive policies."

The center-right talking point emerged because despite a 9-point net swing in the margin of Mr. Bush's popular-vote victory four years ago and Mr. Obama's four week's ago, the shares of Americans who in 2008 polls identified themselves as "liberal," "moderate" or "conservative" essentially held steady from 2004. Those describing themselves as "liberals" edged up from 21 percent to 22 percent, while self-described "conservatives" slipped from 45 percent to 44 percent, with "moderates" holding steady at 34 percent.

The problem is that the liberal-conservative-moderate menu boxes respondents into a simplistic trichotomy. With no real explanation of their meaning and no other options, the results are an artifact of the construction of the question.

What is the correct response for a self-identified libertarian? Because they believe in limited government, some libertarians might consider themselves classical liberals; others may say their belief in small government is conservative; still others may associate "liberal" with Democrats, "conservative" with Republicans, reject both, and self-identify as moderates.

Also, are respondents supposed to base their answer on their social or economic views? A union worker who opposes abortion and same-sex unions but supports trade restrictions and greater business regulation may find himself puzzled about which label fits most comfortably.

What really matters are not labels but the policy preferences or view of government's proper role undergirding those labels. And on that score, America is no center-right country.

Pluralities, if not majorities, of Americans favor protecting reproductive choice, maintaining Social Security, doing more to combat global warming and investing more in education. In clear rejection of Mr. Bush's neoconservative foreign policy, Americans also express greater worry that the government will trample civil liberties at home than fail to fight terrorism, a greater desire to withdraw from conflicts in the Middle East, and a greater willingness to employ diplomacy with unfriendly countries.

That said, it should come as no surprise that when Mr. Waldman inspected the 2004 National Election Study data, he found that 56 percent of "moderates" identified with the Democratic Party, while only 31 percent identified with the Republicans. The one safe conclusion is that thanks to two decades of demonization by conservative commentators, the label "liberal" has remained toxic despite the growing popularity of liberal policies and the Democratic Party.

Clearly, a poll result has little practical meaning if it stays constant across a four-year period during which the country roundly rejected the conservative governing project and elected the most liberal president in American history.

Now, the delicious irony: By trying to paint the increasingly leftward sentiments of Americans as somehow still center-right, conservatives are lending credence to the very ideological project they oppose. Rather than falling silent, maybe liberals should echo this talking point as our "center-right" nation continues it steady drift leftward.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly in The Sun. His e-mail is

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