A “Center-Right Nation”?

No matter how much social change takes place in the US, 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 US 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 twenty 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 US is unambiguously left-leaning, we can say for sure that they contradict the claim that the US 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.

Lance Selfa writes for the Socialist Worker where this article first appeared. Read other articles by Lance, or visit Lance's website.

13 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. gui r. said on November 13th, 2008 at 12:59pm #

    exactly correct, but the present political structure prevents a free choice nor can we hope for a Bolivarian Obama. the establishment
    is fully prepared (and becoming even more so) for containing protest.
    Bush cum suis exposed the executive, the bailout will deal with the
    legislative, but neither will be an epiphany for dealing with the failures of the state. reform is a stop gap, but serious thought and planning should make use of the gamble that the establishment took with Obama.
    he will appease many, but at the same time an almost invisble rift has
    appeared in the power holding pattern and that needs to be widened.

  2. Timber said on November 13th, 2008 at 1:41pm #

    I’m shocked to find myself even more cynical than outright socialists or communists, but I find these claims of a liberal/left mandate arising from Obama’s election absolutely ludicrous.

    While I celebrate the fact that we can overcome decades of entrenched racism to elect a person of color to the presidency, I think to assume that most of Obama’s supporters hold a left or liberal political perspective practically delusional. I think the fact that I see the same kind of comments coming from both the right and the Socialist Worker and the Revolutionary Communist Party bears this out. Do more poor kids and teens admire Che Guevara or some corporate pimp like Michael Jordan? Malcolm X or Shakira? If there is overwhelming discontent with “the system,” why does the culture that provides the propaganda and false narrative in support of that system enjoy so much popularity? Does the religious fundamentalism and anti-intellectualism in poor communities (like the one I live in) lend itself to revolution, or to submission and worship of those with power, wealth and influence?

    We already hear Obama, his entourage, and his supporters demanding that we on the left lower our expectations. Again, if this isn’t a center-right nation (as I believe it is), why would a Democratic candidate feel the need to pander to a minority who likely wouldn’t vote for him anyway?

    My fear is that the establishment has simply chosen a friendlier face for the same corporatism, militarism and imperialism we’ve been criticizing under Bush. Are Rahm Emmanuel, Lawrence Summers, Robert Rubin and other Clinton cronies going to be a force for “change?” American liberals were fooled once by Clinton; I can’t help but think they’ve just been fooled again.

  3. Brian said on November 13th, 2008 at 4:27pm #

    Good article. These people are propagandists. It is annoying to turn on cable and see the same talking heads.

    There really hasn’t been much change in the mainstream media, even with the addition of Olberman and Maddow who basically function as PR people for the national Democratic Party, which, at that level, isn’t very liberal.

  4. DavidG. said on November 13th, 2008 at 6:02pm #

    America a center-right country!!!!! When has it ever been right? Not in the last sixty years anyway.

    And when has it ever been center? During the last eight years it has been to the right of Hitler.

    Hopefully better times are coming. Who would know? America might lurch to a far-left-left-sometimes-right position!

    Anything is possible.

  5. corylus said on November 13th, 2008 at 9:07pm #

    In consideration of the havoc wreaked by capitalism on the earth’s environment and its indigenous and self-sustaining cultures, and the fact that virtually every American lives at the behest of an imperialist corporate-government alliance that betroths consumption to our illusions of “liberty,” no one will ever convince me that this nation is anything but greedy, stupid, immoral, narcissistic, and destructive. All the discussions about “left,” “right,” “center,” are vacuous ministrations from self-aggrandized myopic morons who fail to see the irrelevance of their labels and their “arguments” about political constituencies. None of this drivel even matters as the earth and the environment upon which life depends shifts to accommodate human excesses: humans are cancer and earth’s ecology is reacting to the poisons unleashed by human ignorance. Who gives a flying ^%&(* about the American political spectrum – a mote of excrement soon to be obliterated against the universal windshield.

  6. JN said on November 14th, 2008 at 2:29am #

    Small problem with this article: the ‘Democratic’ party isn’t left wing (or indeed Democratic). The US is not just centre-right but in many respects is FAR right, at least as far as the political consensus of the 2 main parties is concerned.

    What you have in the US is a state/corporate dictatorship (what would you call such a thing, in 1 word?!) with a ‘democratic’ facade. The difference between ‘liberals’ & ‘neo-cons’ is really not that great. The ‘Democrats’ have as much blood on their hands as the ‘Republicans.’ They are part of the problem; not the solution. A vote for Obama is a vote for minor strategic reajustments, but basically a continuation of the same capitalist/imperialist policies as those of Bush, Clinton, Bush Snr, Reagan, etc, etc.

    If you “want to see fundamental social change,” certainly you need to organise, but to build committed, radical INDEPENDENT mass movements, to fight BOTH parties. Fuck Obama! Now that the “lesser evil” has been elected, even that (false) argument for supporting him is gone.


  7. JN said on November 14th, 2008 at 2:58am #

    YOU are full of shit. Humans are not “cancer” in any context, you pretentious Nietzche wannabe. The “cancer” here is capitalism.

    “Who gives a flying fuck about the American political spectrum?” How about the Afghans & Iraqis, for a fucking start? Or the Syrians, Pakistanis, Somalis, Palestinians, Iranians, Cubans, Venezualans, Haitians, & Bolivians? Or the British, Germans, Japanese, Russians, Chinese, etc, etc? The whole world in short, because America affects all of us; economicaly, militarily, culturaly to varying degrees.

    Certainly, talking is meaningless IF you don’t do anything about it.
    “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various different ways. The point is to change it.” Karl Marx

  8. gui r. said on November 14th, 2008 at 6:39am #

    there are a lot of very angry people about, but basically what obama is asked to do is to salvage capitalism. but that is on its last legs and ready for the junkyard so despite all the present tortured efforts to keep it ticking on by ripping off the public funds and promising both ends of the spectrum, the moneyed powers and the general duped public to do his level best, obama is pretty much lost. outside benighted america, this is quite well understood by the western european countries, who are bolstering what is left of their economies, hoping that something will give to get them out of the nefarious wall street influence. but folks,
    capitalism is on its last rotten legs, long live what may come. but all the angry people should unite and channel their revulsion into productive
    resistance and mutual support for helping along this demise and give the system a decent burial without allowing it to harm too many victims…

  9. Brian Koontz said on November 16th, 2008 at 12:35am #

    Capitalism is not on it’s “last legs”. Ask the Chinese, Indians, Venezuelans, or South Koreans how capitalism is doing. Capitalism is merely private ownership (control) of matter, and everything that springs from that. However destructive and horrible capitalism is, it will only be on it’s last legs when a force rises which is powerful enough to destroy it. Nothing like that is going to happen in the near future, and anything beyond that is almost impossible to predict.

    Capitalism might be gone in 40 years. It might still be here in 400. But it’s not going away in 4.

  10. bozhidar bob balkas said on November 16th, 2008 at 9:04am #

    yes, u’r correct.
    meaning of the word “capitalism” cannot be elucidated if we try to define it.
    however, the meaning of the sentences “payer-payee”, or “master-serf relationship” is clear.
    natch, the masters: the ‘illuminati’, generals, editors, media owners, cars salesmen, ceos, cfos, billionaires, shareholders, entertainers avoid like a plague any elucidation.
    instead, the simplicity of all this is arrayed as freedoms, justice, lawfulness, right to defend one’s interests, free speech, etcetc.
    eg, take my wife? she knew nothing ab these issues. she assumed that she’s incapable of understanding the ‘profound’ issues since childhood she’ been inculculated w. obnoxious propaganda.
    but after i explain to her certain relationships btwn us and them, she obtains knowledge; she can see. thnx

  11. Max Shields said on November 16th, 2008 at 9:06am #

    Mr. Koontz I would agree that “capital” is and will always continue to be a component of human economic systems. I would, however, hesitate, to go so far as to say that “capitalism” as we’ve known it is going to stay with us. The difficulty is the re-framing of the lexicon. A word, whether, left, right or capitalism can be framed and re-framed without retaining what we originally understood. Our mental models are temporal but the words stay the same.

    So, I think it’s wise to strip away the word usage and get to the core. We don’t need to play the game set up by the power elite, as powerful as that elite is. The conversation can move on. In fact, it is absolutely it does.

  12. RodD said on December 24th, 2008 at 9:56pm #

    Maybe the US should not have saved Europe from Hitler. Considering that Europeons feel more superior to the US. It might be a good idea for the US to pull its military operations out of Europe and let Europe solve their own problems. Im sure Russia, China and the Middle East will show their respect to Europe as Europe “knows” what is best for the “inferior Americans.

  13. fekkkkog geoooore said on August 1st, 2009 at 11:11pm #

    Great article.

    And to RodD: Remove yourself from the gene pool, you dolt.