QUESTIONING THE ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT A ‘CENTER-RIGHT NATION’…. On Election Day 2008, Barack Obama had the highest vote percentage of any Democratic presidential candidate in 40 years. He had the highest non-incumbent vote percentage of any candidate, from either party, in 56 years. The same day, voters elected the largest Democratic House majority in two decades, and the largest Democratic Senate majority in three decades.
The day after the election, several leading media voices, including NBC’s Tom Brokaw, described the country as “center-right.” It followed a massive Newsweek cover story that insisted the United States is a “center-right” nation. David Sirota made a fascinating observation at the time, charting the frequency with which the term “center-right nation” appeared in major media — and it spiked the day after the election.
But as much as I’ve scoffed at the establishment’s near-obsession with the dubious observation, the question of whether it might actually be true seems to have become more relevant recently. After all, self-identified conservatives outnumber self-identified liberals by a two-to-one margin — a phenomenon that’s been consistent for decades — and even modest attempts at progressive governing over the last 20 months have caused some major-league hysterics in some circles.
What’s more, consider the trajectory of the Republican Party over the last several decades. The Republicanism of the Eisenhower/Nixon years would fit comfortably in the Democratic mainstream of the 20th century, while the radicalism of the contemporary GOP doesn’t seem to bother voters much — at least not if this year’s polling is any indication.
So, is there something to this “center-right” talk? Ezra Klein had a good item the other day making the case that we’re probably just not especially ideological. Our politics is resistant to change, which represents a certain kind of conservatism, but not the one the “center-right” is describing.
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 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.
That sounds right to me. We saw just such a moment in the wake of spectacular recent Republican failures, which gave Democrats an unusually-large majority, and an opportunity to complete some historic achievements. It’s that “durable” part that’s proving difficult, especially in the midst of a still-struggling economy.
Still, it’s a debate worthy of additional exploration, so I thought I’d open this up for some debate: is this a “center-right” nation? What’s the appropriate metric to even consider such a question?