Since the election, conservatives have consoled themselves with the idea that Obama may have won, but America is still a “center-right nation.” But the phrase is tossed around with little evidence—possibly because there is none. Even if there were evidence, the term is so muddled as to be meaningless.
Defenders of the center-right maxim usually cite the statistic that more Americans identify themselves as conservative (38 percent, according to the most recent study by the Pew Research Center) than liberal (21 percent) or moderate (36 percent). But that’s just what people think they are. In practice, the labels aren’t clear-cut. Many self-identified conservatives support social safety nets, for example, while many liberals support coastal drilling. Meanwhile, not everyone agrees on the definitions of liberal and conservative, so self-identification means little. It’s not unlike middle-class. Since there’s no clear definition, almost everyone think they’re middle-class.
“You can go down the list of social measures … and come up with different kinds of characterizations,” says Andrew Kohut of Pew Research. For example, most people say they oppose government intervention into private matters. But they support the idea of a social safety net, such as food stamps, which is nothing if not the government intervening to prevent or fix some individual problem. And they support such policies even if it means the government has to go into debt. This makes it ridiculously easy for partisans to cherry-pick data to support their favorite characterization.
Center-righters also cite recent presidential history: Just look at the streak of Republican presidents in the last 30 years, they say. Five of the last seven presidents have been Republican. And until Obama’s victory, no Democrat had won more than 51 percent of the popular vote since Lyndon Johnson.
What this ignores, though, is that while Republicans have dominated the executive branch, Democrats dominated the House and Senate for all but six of the 40 years before the GOP takeover in 1994. You can also re-spin the “recent presidents” numbers. If you start counting in 1960 and count Barack Obama, then five of the last 10 candidates elected president are Democrats. Ta-da!
Another commonly cited piece of evidence is campaign strategy: Obama had to “tack to the center” and “court independents” in order to beat McCain. Without capitulating on FISA, embracing gun rights, and turning hawkish on Pakistan and Afghanistan, the center-righters argue, Obama would not have won. It’s an odd argument, though, when the Republican nominee was also considered “moderate” (more on that later) and appears to have lost at least in part because on some crucial issues, he wasn’t moderate enough—on health care, for example, McCain maintained a staunchly market-oriented approach.
At the same time, Obama did not tack right on the major issues. What he said about Iraq on Election Day was the same thing he said about Iraq when he announced his candidacy. His support for free trade with extra protections for labor and the environment didn’t change, either. Of course, he left things purposefully vague so as to appeal to the broadest possible audience. But he was nowhere near “center-right.” Yes, Obama won by courting independents. But he didn’t go to them so much as they came to him.
Another defense of the C.R.-bomb is to compare the United States with other countries, especially European ones. After all, we’re more religious, our unions are weaker, and we tend to favor free markets over government control. But as Ramesh Ponnuru points out on National Review’s The Corner, “If that’s all it means to say ‘center right’ … we could probably go through a long period of political domination by liberals and still qualify.” Even if we are center-right by global standards, that has little bearing on whom we elect.
If anything, though, evidence suggests the country is heading leftward. Americans voted more Democratic in 2008 than in 2004, and more so in 2006 than in 2002. Plus, there’s less stigma attached to the “liberal” label. Young people are almost as likely to identify themselves as liberal (27 percent) as they are conservative (30 percent), as opposed to middle-aged Americans, who are half as likely to (19 percent to 41 percent).
And most important, the proportion of Americans who favor government help for people who can’t care for themselves has increased steadily in the last 12 years, from 57 percent in 1994 to 69 percent in 2007, according to a 2007 Pew survey. At the same time, conservatives have changed their views on any number of social issues. As Hoover Institution fellow Tod Lindberg pointed out recently in the Washington Post: “In 1980, having a teenage daughter who was pregnant out of wedlock would have ruled you out for the No. 2 spot on the Democratic ticket. This year, it turned out to be a humanizing addition to the conservative vice presidential nominee’s résumé.”
Still, let’s forget all this and pretend that the evidence of America’s center-rightness is rock-solid. We are a center-right nation. We are then left with the task of defining what that means.
The answer? It means nothing. What makes someone a righty or lefty? Self-identification is out—as we have seen, a self-styled liberal can hold conservative views and vice versa. Is it policy? That’s not entirely clear, either. Foreign intervention is associated with neocons, but many conservatives favor restraint when it comes to invading other countries. Protectionism is pegged as liberal, but it’s a conservative policy in the sense of conserving the existing order. School vouchers are considered conservative, but many liberals, including Obama, support them. It certainly isn’t about party. Republicans no longer have a monopoly on fiscal restraint, and polls show that Americans trust Democrats more to handle the economy.
In other words, even if the country were center-right, it isn’t necessarily good news for the GOP.
So why does the center-right meme persist? Good marketing, mostly. After the 1970s, liberal became something of a slur, associated as it was with love-ins, bra-burning, and moral equivalence. Even people who supported big government avoided the word. At the same time, conservatism became equated with responsibility and economic growth. Even today, a full quarter of Democrats identify themselves as conservative, according to Pew. In other words, Americans call themselves conservative more because of the residual backlash against 1960s and ‘70s social upheaval than because of their real-world beliefs.
“Center-right” also survives because Bush is at least partly responsible for Obama’s victory. Sure, many Americans undoubtedly voted for Obama because they like his plans for taxes or withdrawal from Iraq or health care. But others voted for him because he’s a Democrat and Bush isn’t.
Take the economy: Obama polled well not because he knew more about economics but because people blamed Bush for the meltdown. Republicans can therefore chalk his victory up to the economy, without acknowledging the ideological shifts that might have helped Obama win even if the credit markets hadn’t collapsed. Complicating things further are Bush’s spendthrift ways, which many conservatives have watched with fury. If it’s fiscal conservatism America wants, electing a Republican is no longer a sure fix.
Ironically, the fate of the center-right debate may depend on Obama. If more bailouts drive up the deficit as the country falls deeper into recession, Americans may sour on the idea of rescue liberalism. (Right now more than half support bailing out Detroit.) Same if Obama pulls out of Iraq and the country sinks back into chaos. Or if he devotes massive resources to reforming health care, only to have prices skyrocket and hospital lines snake around the block.
On the other hand, liberalism could become more popular if Obama succeeds. Just as the “conservative” label still benefits from Reagan’s perceived success, the “liberal” label could benefit from a successful Obama administration. For now, the future of liberalism—as well as that of center-rightism—rests on Obama’s shoulders.