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Are we a center-right nation?

Every so often, you hear someone say that America is a center-right nation. What that means is often a bit fuzzy, but it gets applied to everything from why Republicans win about half of our elections to why we don't have a national health-care system. It's a way to explain not only Republican victories and Democratic losses, but also the need for Democrats to be cautious after victories and for Republicans to be ambitious when they take office. It's a view, in other words, with implications.

So I imagine we'll be hearing a lot about it in November. But I don't buy it. Which isn't to say we're a center-left country. I don't think that, either. Rather, the premise that policy and election outcomes are a coherent expression of national values seems like a misguided projection. Pundits and political professionals think a lot about how the details of various policies fit with their ideologies (though they often abandon those thoughts when their party asks them to), but I don't see much evidence that the average voter follows a similar process.

For instance: We know that self-described conservatives outnumber self-described liberals, and appear to have done so for as long as we've been polling the question. But we also know that self-described Democrats outnumber self-described Republicans -- even when conservative pollsters are asking the question -- and that's been true for decades, too. So we're a conservative country ... that leans towards the Democrats? Huh.

We know, for instance, that Americans are less bothered by inequality than Europeans. But we also know that, when given a choice (pdf), Americans say they'd like their level of wealth inequality to look less like America's and more like Sweden's.

America's center-rightness is supposedly proven by the fact that we don't have a government-run health-care system. But we love our Medicare. We prefer it, in fact, to our private insurance. And we're less satisfied with our system than Europeans are with theirs. So we're a country that opposes government-run health care -- except when we have it, and then we far prefer it to the private market, and we're more likely than people in other countries to demand that our health-care system gets rebuilt.

I want to be clear what I'm arguing here: It's not that Americans don't have measurably different opinions than Europeans. It's that our opinions and the outcomes of our political system are not closely correlated. Rather, I think that the exceptionalism of the American political system comes from its structure, which is conservative with a small-c.

Because it's harder for the government to do things, the government does fewer things. At least seven presidents have run for office with some sort of universal health-care plan. In another system, one of them would've succeeded, and we would have had national health care by the mid-20th century, and one of the central policy differences between America and Europe wouldn't exist. As it happens, our system makes legislative change difficult, and so they all failed. But in the cases when they succeeded -- Social Security and Medicare -- their successes are wildly popular, and efforts to roll the programs back have been catastrophic failures. The American political system isn't so much biased against the left or the right as against change in general, and though there are occasional moments when events and majorities align to allow a political party to achieve a lot of the items on its agenda, they're quite rare, and almost never durable.

By Ezra Klein  | September 30, 2010; 2:51 PM ET
Categories:  Polls  
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Comments

We have a government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich. There is no debate about that. (And it will get worse, now that corporations can overtly buy elections.) I think that pretty much makes us a defacto center-right country, in terms of government at least.

Posted by: AZProgressive | September 30, 2010 3:14 PM | Report abuse

well that would explain this:

http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0910/42738.html

Posted by: visionbrkr | September 30, 2010 3:38 PM | Report abuse

The polling on health care reform seems like a microcosm of national political opinion. Americans tend to lean liberal when asked about specifics, but conservative when questioned on a more general level. I think this reflects a real abiding distrust of "big government" that has always been part of our national consciousness, and which gave rise to - and mutually reinforces - our
"c"onservative political structure. So I think in that sense we are a center-right nation, and that is why changes like the ACA, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security required extraordinary political circumstances, while tax cuts and deregulation are much easier to get done.

Posted by: jduptonma | September 30, 2010 3:57 PM | Report abuse

"For instance: We know that self-described conservatives outnumber self-described liberals, and appear to have done so for as long as we've been polling the question. But we also know that self-described Democrats outnumber self-described Republicans -- even when conservative pollsters are asking the question -- and that's been true for decades, too. So we're a conservative country ... that leans towards the Democrats? Huh."

*************************

I'm surprised a WaPo pundit doesn't get this. It's really not so hard to understand.

Political affiliation in the US is a lot like religion. It provides a sense of identity, and people are usually of the same party their parents belonged to.

The Democratic Party leadership was much more conservative until the late 1960's. So while the Party has become very liberal, many "Reagan Democrats" have been slow to change their affiliation. To them, the Republican Party is still the "Party of the Rich," and therefore not for them, but that doesn't mean they have become liberals.

Posted by: pmendez | September 30, 2010 5:01 PM | Report abuse

Europeans are currently rioting in their streets, and OUR system is resistant to change?

Posted by: tomtildrum | September 30, 2010 5:09 PM | Report abuse

pmendez, I think it's safe to say that the political realignment after the Civil Rights era ended quite a while ago.

Posted by: MosBen | September 30, 2010 5:14 PM | Report abuse

Smart post, Ezra. This sort of keen analytical thinking is what distinguishes you -- that and the ability to write with exceptional clarity.

You're invaluable, and I hope wherever your career takes you that you do not abandon you highest and best value-added activity.

In case you think this is deeply buried sarcasm, please be assured I couldn't be more sincere -- and more grateful for your work.

Posted by: fredbrack | September 30, 2010 5:22 PM | Report abuse

Why don't they poll Medicare and Medicaid separately?

Posted by: krazen1211 | September 30, 2010 5:47 PM | Report abuse

Did it take work to become this vacuous or does it come naturally?

Posted by: cdosquared5 | September 30, 2010 5:55 PM | Report abuse

@AZProgressive: "We have a government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich. There is no debate about that."

And, um, let me guess, you think the government should be even bigger and more powerful.

What would not be worse about that, in terms of what you stated above? You think giving even more power to politicians, or to the *right sort of* politicians is finally going to tilt the government over to whatever fantasy about it lives in your head? Do you?

Posted by: msoja | September 30, 2010 6:21 PM | Report abuse

I very much agree. The evidence for center-rightness is basically the liberal-moderate-conservative polls. It is clear that Americans don't like the word liberal (nor do continental Europeans but there it means pro-market). I am very confident that many people are thinking of sexual mores when they choose between liberal and conservative.

Also even if the US public is to the right of the European public, that doesn't mean the US public is too the right of the Democratic party (let alone closer to the Republican party). The Republican party would be a fringe right party in Europe.

Another issue on which the polls are very consistent is the "do rich people pay their fair share of taxes" question (regularly asked by Gallup). The news last month was that the public supported higher taxes on rich people. This is not news. This is a very stable pattern in the polling data (in fact last month's data were very weak compared to say polls from 2000).

Just look at pollster.com and not just the section on taxes. When the debate was about reforming social security, the only reform with majority support was raising the FICA ceiling. When the debate was on how to pay for health care reform, the only proposal with majority support was higher taxes on the rich.

Yet this fact was never ever mentioned until a month ago (and that was on progressive blogs). This is the key number one issue for Republicans and they are in a small minority and almost no one ever mentions this fact.

Posted by: rjw88 | September 30, 2010 6:49 PM | Report abuse

"I think that pretty much makes us a defacto center-right country, in terms of government at least."

That's right on. If you had a parliamentary system, the US would be extremely liberal. Places like Chicago and NYC would dominate politics, because that's where the people are. Instead, we got backwater places like Alabama and Mississippi being over-represented @ the federal level. It's the system that's conservative.

But that's the way it's gotta be, I guess, to keep the backwater folks from storming the gates w/ pitchforks. We had to compromise with conservatives in creating the Constitution, then fought w/ them in the Civil War to keep them from leaving, then fought them in the Civil Rights struggle, etc etc. The Southern "red states" are our country's cross to bear, and they distort our federal politics -- making them look "center-right." We can only move forward only as fast as they can be dragged. That doesn't mean, though, that most people in the US are center-right.

"And, um, let me guess, you think the government should be even bigger and more powerful."

I think it's choosing what's less evil, in your general outlook toward government. No liberal wants big government as an ends -- they just look at a problem and try to see what works most efficiently. Conservatives seem like they like platitudes about small government as an ends, which ends up benefiting things that don't represent people well (businesses, powerful interests). I know "politicians" don't necessarily represent everyone all that well, but that's why things like good government matter to liberals -- to make the government act more on everyone's behalf so policies come out better. So yeah, electing the "right sort of" politicians is about trying to get my policy preferences enacted -- but it's also about ensuring government works. It seems like conservatives' policy preferences end up in government not working, even while it shifts more power to powerful interests outside government and those who are unaccountable to anyone.

Posted by: Chris_ | September 30, 2010 6:51 PM | Report abuse

I think most of the country is just like me. I'm a registered dem but will vote for the message, not the party. I'm a fiscal conservative, but liberal when it comes to social safety nets. I consider myself in the center and always listen to opposing views, before making up my mind on any given issue. I've worked in both the public and private sectors, and prefer public service. The sense of accomplishment in helping people is greater than the private sector purpose of making a profit to make someone else richer. I've paid into Social Security and Medicare all my working life and feel it is my right to collect it when I retire, but I also feel welfare should be limited, with job training to transition people from a 'handout' to a 'hand up'. There are a lot of us out there that do not draw lines in the sand, nor do we feel it is the best way to govern this nation of individual beliefs. Compromise is the key to successful government. The sooner the pols realize that backing themselves into a corner with a hard view, either right or left, the more voters like me will think twice about voting form them. Too far right or left, you lose.

Posted by: mjohnson1116 | September 30, 2010 7:09 PM | Report abuse

"Too far right or left, you lose."

The problem is that now that the different ideologies are sorted into two different parties, getting anything done requires our representation being "too left" or "too right." It's pretty screwed up.

Posted by: Chris_ | September 30, 2010 7:19 PM | Report abuse

"Too far right or left, you lose."

The problem is that now that the different ideologies are sorted into two different parties, getting anything done requires our representation being "too left" or "too right." It's pretty screwed up.

Posted by: Chris_ | September 30, 2010 7:19 PM | Report abuse

A fascinating recent study on American views of wealth inequality here found that:

A) We underestimate it considerably, and B) favor drastically more equitable levels.

More specifically, people were shown graphs of the U.S.'s wealth distribution (richest 20% controlling 84% of the wealth) and Sweden's wealth distribution (richest 20% controlling 36% of the wealth), BUT WITHOUT THE LABELS. 92% preferred to live in the Swedish one!

http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2010/09/24-5

(Below the article is a reader of the actual study. Be sure to check out the last page which has a bar graph illustrating the findings.)

Posted by: Trogdorprof | September 30, 2010 7:45 PM | Report abuse

--"More specifically, people were shown graphs of the U.S.'s wealth distribution (richest 20% controlling 84% of the wealth) and Sweden's wealth distribution (richest 20% controlling 36% of the wealth), BUT WITHOUT THE LABELS. 92% preferred to live in the Swedish one!"--

Which shows either how gullible people are, or how deceitful statistic-waving, poll-using propagandists are.

I think the pollsters neglected to inform their targets that there simply isn't as much wealth to distribute in Sweden as there is in the United States. The average American would have to make do with about twenty percent less to fit into the less bountiful life of the average Swede.

But heck, you know, one can make the most inane pronouncements with the proper squiggly lines on a piece of posterboard. Especially when wants to get one's hooks into as much of someone else's money as one can.

Posted by: msoja | September 30, 2010 8:53 PM | Report abuse

Maybe Americans should look at their own wealth. If they're not happy, ask themselves what they can do to improve it--
instead of begrudging others.
I've never begrudged those who have more money than myself and I've never expected
government to give me someone else's money, either.
What kind of people think they're "entitled" to other people's money?

Posted by: ohioan | September 30, 2010 9:13 PM | Report abuse

I don't think we are conservative with a small "c." I think we are center-left. As well, I think we're misrepresented by our own media.

When people say "we the people"--who are "the people," and is American mass media reflecting the message of "the people" (or just "the LOUDEST people").

Conservative shouting televisions shows and conservative cable networks will tell you "the people" are white, conservative, and very religious (Gallup, 2010). The Huffington Post says, by contrast, America is liberal--a center-left nation (Cesna, 2010).

So, that means the average person is in a bit of an identity crisis. We hear a loud and hyperbolic message from the television and radio. Ingrained in the human brain is the belief that a loud message means there are many behind the message. So, if you lean more liberal, you might think you're surrounded by conservatives, and you might think it's best to keep your ideas to yourself.

It's not the liberal way (Hahn, 2003, p. 37) to provide the kind of hysteria that makes for good television. So, there is no way for the liberal message to be loud and hysterical enough for the public to discern whether there is a majority behind it.


References:

Cesna, B. (2010, September 22). Despite America's Temper Tantrum, it's Still a Center-Left Nation. Retrieved September 27, 2010, from Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bob-cesca/despite-americas-temper-t_b_735466.html

Gallup, Inc. (2010, September 26). Republicans Remain Disproportionately White and Religious. Retrieved from Gallup: http://www.gallup.com/poll/142826/republicans-remain-disproportionately-white-religious.aspx

Hahn, D. (2003). Political Communication: Rhetoric, Government, and Citizens (Second ed.). State College, PA, USA: Strata.

Posted by: stella12 | October 1, 2010 9:17 AM | Report abuse

--"I don't think we are conservative with a small "c." I think we are center-left."--

*We* are individuals, not some herd to be prodded in one direction or another based on fatuous notions of pragmatism or good intentions.

The U.S. was founded on the radical principle that the individual reigned supreme over his own life, rather than as a subject of the royal (or any other) "we". It was the greatest emancipation the world had ever known, and now you and morons like Klein want to drag everyone back into the pre-Enlightenment dark.

Posted by: msoja | October 1, 2010 11:49 AM | Report abuse

That individualism means we are not a center-left nation is absurd. Individualism has little or nothing to do with it. Except the fact that I, as an individual, consider myself center-left. And I think more individual people are than not.

I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that you are *not* center-left. And, I will thank you for proving my point with your inflammatory hyperbolic language.

Posted by: stella12 | October 1, 2010 1:10 PM | Report abuse

Anybody who thinks they made it in America thanks only to their own talents and hard work need to see how well they'd make it if they were dropped in the Dominican Republic or sub-Saharan Africa.
America has never, ever been a collection of "individuals". If you make it here, you've made it because you have effectively taken advantage of our institutions, our economic system, our advantages as a society.

Posted by: poperatzo | October 1, 2010 5:48 PM | Report abuse

--*[O]ur institutions, our economic system, our advantages as a society.*--

Are what they are precisely because, for so many years, individuals could exercise such great freedom in the conduct of their lives. Our institutions (to use your nebulous word), our economic system, our advantages are the end result of the free exchange among intelligent adults respecting the rights of others as they expect in their own regards. They are manifestations of the freedom and the responsibility that goes hand and hand with true freedom.

But, now, and for many years, our freedom has been eaten away, little by little, by those who have convinced themselves that they know better what is good for other people, better than those other people know for themselves.

So, now, you can't buy that TV that you want today, because the money for it has been snatched from you in the name of the social security net, under the assumption that if you're lucky to live long enough, you might get some of it back.

So, now, Whole Foods (a grocery chain!) can't buy Wild Oats Markets without the FTC crawling all over it for three years.

So, now, health insurance companies are shutting down, because they cannot compete in a market where all the rule are set by the government holding sway with billions of stolen dollars.

Pretty soon, I'll be a criminal for not buying the government's mandated crap.

And despite your myopia, very real successes bloomed out of our free institutions and systems, for years. But those institutions and systems are being dismantled, or hindered, or forbidden, and in their place is being built something under which no one, or almost no one outside the preferred political classes, will be allowed to succeed. The old saw about collectivism making every one equal, as in equally miserable, is an old saw for a reason: It's true.

As O'Rourke said, "If you think health care is expensive now, wait until you see what it costs when it's free."

If you think our freedom isn't worthy much, you're going to be in for a rude surprise when it's gone.

Posted by: msoja | October 2, 2010 7:42 PM | Report abuse

The perception of Government as the problem is the result of marketing begun by the Reagan adminsitration. Healthcare as an insurance-for-profit racket began with support from the Nixon White House staff. The demonization of Liberal policies is just so much marketing which also began with the Reagan adminsitration which is where the major undermining of the middle class began in earnest, including the scuttling of unions that protected up to one third of all middle class workers. Just as Microsoft has pee-poor products, but great marketing, Americans are hobbled by marketing that cajoles, coerces and scares them into voting against their own interests. Only should campaign reform reverse the corporate purchase of Congress, and artificial personhood be denied corporations, and the attendant civil rights to inanimate entities, will these anti-human and ultimately un-American disasters be relieved.

Posted by: southpaugh | October 5, 2010 4:58 PM | Report abuse

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