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Even Right-Wingers Become Liberals When They Turn Off Fox News

America's center is to the left, and even Tea Partyers are liberals when they turn off Rush and learn real facts.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Orhan Cam

 

As the government shutdown neared its end, an NBC/Esquire poll appeared trying to promote the idea of “New American Center.” Salon’s own Alex Pareene skewered it rather mercilessly, for various good reasons, not least of which was how the whole enterprise came off: “It seems like marketing for NBC and Esquire — we represent the sensible (and probably affluent) center! Don’t be scared of our political content, advertisers!” Pareene wrote. But there was more: “[I]t is clearly very psychically important to the elite political media that a reasonable center exist. A common-sense, centrist middle is an essential, foundational myth of the nonpartisan press.

And yet, as James Fallows pointed out in “Breaking the News,” in 1996, today’s elite media also thrives on superficial coverage of controversy, which makes it complicit in generating the very extremism it simultaneous deplores, condemns and needs to hold at bay in order to legitimate itself.

With such a profoundly self-contradictory practice, it should not surprise us that the poll was even more misleading than Pareene described. Polarization in some sense is real — and yet also partial, misleading and embedded in consensus as well. Tea Partyers ranting “Keep the government’s hands off my Medicare!” may seem comical — but they also show just how broad a true consensus can be.  In fact, they reflect two central (but routinely ignored) facts of American public opinion that have remained remarkably stable since the 1960s, despite all that’s changed since then:

  1.  It’s not just the center vs. the extremes; there is broad consensus across the boards on the basic contours of government spending priorities — the historically most important dimension of political opinion.
     
  2.  It’s just that the center is not where it’s supposed to be: It’s not somewhere in between the two parties, it’s well to the left of the Democrats in D.C.

These two facts are both in full force with respect to the ongoing post-shutdown budget battle. In fact, a sophisticated poll covering 31 budget items as well as revenue sources conducted around the 2010 elections found that, even then, Republican, Democratic and independent voters all agreed on much higher taxes and much deeper defense cuts as the most striking elements of how the budget should be crafted. But before we examine that poll, we need to put these two key facts into long-term context.

The first clear picture of this situation came from two pioneers of public opinion research, Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril, in their 1967 book, “The Political Beliefs of Americans,” based on surveys conducted in 1964. Their most striking finding was profoundly paradoxical: While half the population qualified as ideological conservatives, based on questions about government interference and individual initiative, two-thirds of the population were operationally liberal, supporting an activist federal government when asked about specific programs or responsibilities — stable or increased federal government spending on education, housing and urban renewal, adoption of Johnson’s Medicare proposal, and government responsibility to fight poverty.

In short, the American people were in some sense schizoid — opposed to big government in principle, but even more supportive of it in practice. Most strikingly, almost one-quarter of the population — 23 percent — were both ideological conservatives and operational liberals, and this figure skyrocketed to 46 percent in the Deep South states that Goldwater carried in the 1964 election.

In the final section of the final chapter of the book, titled “The Need for a Restatement of American Ideology,” Free and Cantril wrote:

The paradox of a large majority of Americans qualifying as operational liberals while at the same time a majority hold to a conservative ideology has been repeatedly emphasized in this study. We have described this state of affairs as mildly schizoid, with people believing in one set of principles abstractly while acting according to another set of principles in their political behavior. But the principles according to which the majority of Americans actually behave politically have not yet been adequately formulated in modern terms …