Americans Move Left; New York Times Misses It

The headline atop Saturday's op-ed page was a hallowed standby for the New York Times: "Americans Move to the Middle." Assembled by Times "visual columnist" Charles Blow, the text of the column was dwarfed by 15 graphs tracking recent movement in American public opinion, based on Gallup polls. There was one problem: The headline totally distorted the data.

An accurate headline would have been "American Opinion Moves Leftward" -- but accuracy was apparently trumped by centrist ideology. (Yes, there are ideologues of the center, as well as of Left or Right.)

It's a cherished myth of many in establishment punditry that most Americans perpetually and happily find their way to the safe center of American politics. This pleasant status quo consensus is marred, in Blow's text, by "party extremists sharpening their wedge issues" to rally their bases and caricature their opponents.

Here's the data, presented by Blow and the Times: 15 public opinion graphs on various issues starting in 2001-2003 and ending in 2006-2008. Of the 15, about a dozen track issues on which there are recognizable positions associated with Right and Left. Of those dozen, the trend in opinion is unmistakably leftward on virtually every one.

On foreign policy:

  • "The Iraq war has made the U.S. less safe from terrorism." 37 percent in 2003 and 49 percent four years later.

  • "The U.S. should not attack another country unless it has been attacked first." 51 percent in October 2002 and 57 percent in 2006.

  • "The government is spending too much for national defense and military purposes." 19 percent in February 2001 and 44 percent in February 2008.

On cultural issues:
  • "Organized religion should have less influence in this nation." 22 percent in January 2001 and 34 percent in January 2008.

Asked if the following were "morally acceptable," trend lines were leftward.
  • "Gay relationships:" 40 percent in May 2001 to 48 percent in May 2008.

  • "Divorce:" 59 percent to 70 percent in same time period.

  • "Medical research using stem cells from human embryos:" from 52 percent in May 2002 to 62 percent in May 2008.

  • Some might argue that there is one Times graph that trends rightward: "The state of moral values in the country as a whole is getting worse." It went from 67 percent in May 2002 to 81 percent in May 2008. Yet I'm no conservative, and I'm absolutely part of the 81 percent -- given the declining morals that descend from corporate, government and religious elites.

    So the Times presents Gallup data showing a clear trend toward the left and calls it a "Move to the Middle." Is the assumption that we were mostly right-wingers a few years ago? Or is the "move to the middle" line simply more reassuring to an establishment newspaper?

    The reality is that long-term trends in American opinion are generally leftward on issues, as documented in well-researched studies.

    It's a reality that troubles those Beltway pundits who constantly goad Barack Obama toward "the center" on issues like Iraq and NAFTA; they're actually urging him to move away from the center of mass opinion and upward toward the center of elite opinion.

    A demagogue like Sean Hannity instinctively knows this reality, which is why his attacks on Obama emphasize Wright-Ayres-Bitter-Michelle more than issues.

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