The American people are center-left (or at least firmly in the center) on the primary matters over which government presides: taxation and debt, public services, the regulation of the economy and America’s role in the world.
But that hasn’t stopped a lot of bloviating to the contrary. Only moments after the networks declared Barack Obama the winner of a dramatic realignment election, William Bennett, the conservative icon, declared on CNN that “America is still a center-right nation, no matter what anybody says.”
Implied was that it also didn’t matter what exit polls, mountains of public opinion data, shifts in partisan identification and changes in the country’s demographics say. That stuff’s apparently for the “reality-based” community to worry about.
Reality: an Election Day poll by the Center for American Progress and the Campaign for America’s Future asked whether Republicans had lost because they were too conservative or not conservative enough. By a twenty point margin, voters chose Ã¢â‚¬Å“too conservativeÃ¢â‚¬Â, including independents who agreed by a 21 point margin. Seven out of ten said they wanted the Republicans to work with Obama and Ã¢â‚¬Å“help him achieve his plans,Ã¢â‚¬Â while fewer than a quarter of respondents thought the GOP should try to keep him from implementing a progressive agenda.
That didn’t prevent conservatives, desperate to spin a shellacking at the ballot box, from insisting that the contrary is true. House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) wrote a letter to his despondent Ã¢â‚¬â€ and shrinking Ã¢â‚¬â€ GOP caucus insisting that Ã¢â‚¬Å“Democrats should not make the mistake of viewing TuesdayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s results as a repudiation of conservatism.Ã¢â‚¬Â And Republican Senator Jim DeMint (South Carolina) had the chutzpah to say that the lopsided election results only proved that Ã¢â‚¬Å“the American people agree with our ideas…Ã¢â‚¬Â
These are nonsensical talking-points, but as journalist Matt Taibbi told Bill Maher at the height of the campaign, “You can run just about any bullshit up the flag pole, and the mainstream media will simply stand there and salute it, and repeat it seemingly within minutes.”
That a great number of pundits did exactly that, immediately taking up the question of whether the U.S is center-right, is just more evidence that much of the traditional media’s analysis of American politics is utterly worthless, and should probably just be ignored out of hand.
After all, there’s a good deal of hard data (as weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll see below) showing that Americans lean left on most substantive issues. But it’s also a matter of common sense. During the campaign, the Republicans called Obama a socialist, clunkily accused him of being a “wealth redistributor” and held up Joe the Plumber as an example of the burdens small businesses like Exxon-Mobile and JP Morgan would have to bear under an Obama administration. In other words, they made this election explicitly about ideology, and Obama kicked their collective ass.
Again, that brutal beating took place mere moments before the blathering class started gazing into their navels in search of evidence of our center-right essence.
Of course, it is true that our friends in Western Europe, Canada and other liberal democracies scoff at our puritan tendencies on sexual matters. If AmericaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s reaction to Janet Jackson’s infamous flash of boob or the widespread perception that the entertainment media are unbearably smutty were legitimate proxies for ideology, then it might be fair to say that we lean rightward. The only issue over which progressives got creamed this year was gay marriage.
It’s also true that because of our history, and some unfortunately vague text in our Constitution, there are a good number of Americans whose guns can only be pried from their cold, dead hands. And, finally, we’re a heterogeneous, tribal country, and that leads to some resistance to various government programs not seen in wealthy democracies in which most of the population shares a similar ethnic background.
But on health care, trade, international diplomacy, corporate regulation, workers’ rights, retirement security, environmental protection and most other matters of substance, the country is pretty clearly in the progressive camp.
Of course, debating silly distractions on the cable news gab-fests is nothing new. Most of the issues over which the purveyors of hot-air obsessed during the 2008 election season not only proved to be silly distractions according to the exit polls, they also defied common sense.
Take the “Bradley effect.” On MSNBC’s Hardball last week, Chris Matthews joshed with Newsweek’s Howard Fineman about just how much attention they’d given to the idea that white voters would tell pollsters they were supporting a black candidate only to vote the other way when the chips were down. Common sense is enough to debunk the idea of a Bradley effect. Why wouldn’t some cracker who would rather have a sharp stick in the eye than vote for a black man tell pollsters that he was voting for McCain because of his foreign policy experience or his position on offshore drilling? Why lie?
Beyond that, the Bradley effect has been pretty well debunked by political scientists and others in-the-know. The term was coined after Tom Bradley, an African-American, lost the 1982 California gubernatorial race to George Deukmejian. In that race, however, the polls were closing fast in the final stretch. Ken Khachigian, a senior strategist for Deukmajian, called the effect an “urban legend” that “deserves to be banished from our political conversation.” Lance Tarrance, Deukmejian’s pollster and a member of his strategy team, wrote that the idea of a Bradley effect having swung the 1982 race is “a pernicious canard” that’s “unworthy of 21st century political narratives.”
Even if there was a Bradley effect at play in the 1980s, research shows that it had evaporated long before this election by the 2000s. Harvard scholar Daniel Hopkins studied 133 races that took place between 1989 and 2006, and he found that the effect did exist in recent decades but was gone from the political scene after the early 1990s (PDF) But none of that stopped the pundits from blathering on about it ad nauseum during the election season.
What ended up happening? According to the exit polls, Obama pulled in a higher share of white voters than wind-sailing white guy John Kerry, not to mention Southern bubbas Al Gore and Bill Clinton in their respective races in 1992, 1996 and 2000.
Or recall the Beltway media’s fixation with the idea that female Hillary Clinton supporters would be so darn mad at the Democratic party for nominating Obama that they’d be ripe for the picking by McCain? So pervasive was the notion that it played a role (probably not the central one) in McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin, a political neophyte with two X chromosomes, as a running mate.
It was largely based on polls taken during the height of a fiery primary fight between Obama and Clinton, but before the general election campaign between Obama and McCain got into full swing. Common sense would lead one to dismiss those results as a snapshot of a moment of of political passion, rather than a dynamic that would persist through Election Day. As Brad Reed noted last week on AlterNet, “Millions of people flocked to Clinton in the primaries because of her intellect and her wonky passion for bread-and-butter economic issues such as universal health care. She cannot be easily replaced by a woman whose chief accomplishment so far in life has been eating a moose.”
What did the exit polls tell us? Again, Obama outperformed Kerry, Gore and Bill Clinton (in both of his elections) among women — and did better than Kerry among white women — and he also fared better among those who had previously voted for Democrats than in any recent contest save for the 2004 race (Obama’s 89 percent support among that group fell one point shy of Kerry’s performance).
Or what about those rural voters who Obama supposedly lost when he made some offhand comment about bitter hicks clinging to God, guns and gays? Sorry to sound like a broken record, but Obama outperformed Kerry, Gore and Clinton among rural voters.
Working-class voters alienated by his arugula-munching Whole Foods ways? Yup, Obama did better than Clinton, Gore and Kerry among those making less than $30K per year.
And what about Latinos? They broke heavily for Clinton during the primaries, and there was quite a bit of speculation — among a largely lilly-white commentariat — that the brown folk wouldn’t vote for the black guy. What might a little common sense have suggested? The Republicans have demagogued Latinos and other groups with large immigrant populations for five years, and their victims weren’t going to vote for the party of Tom Tancredo, regardless of who was at the top of the ticket. The results? Obama outperformed Kerry by 14 points among Latinos and 6 points among Asian-Americans.
A bit of critical thinking — a modicum of common sense — would have indicated that all of these assertions were wrong, wrong and wrong. And so it is with the idea that America is a center-right nation. Aside from wishful thinking among conservatives, the whole thing is based on a single, weak data point: as noted by the Associated Press, 2008 saw “virtually no change in the ideological spectrum: This year 22 percent called themselves liberal, compared with 21 percent in 2004; 44 percent moderate, compared with 45 percent; and 34 percent conservative, same as four years ago. Since at least 1992, liberals consistently have comprised 20 percent to 22 percent of the electorate.” According to the AP’s analysis, those “figures suggest that despite Tuesday’s broad victory for Obama and Democrats in Congress, voters nationally have not shifted significantly leftward,” and the AP helpfully cautions that Democrats should “bear [that] in mind as they take full control of government in January eager to reshape federal policy.”
The problem with this was ably summed up in a recent column by political scientist Paul Waldman arguing that “on just about everything, it’s the progressive position that is more popular”:
People who know a lot about politics — like journalists — assume that ordinary people have the same interpretation of [the terms “liberal” and “conservative”] as political junkies have. But the truth, as nearly a half-century of political science research has made clear, is that a significant portion of the public has little or no idea of what these terms mean in the political world. A third of the public can’t even tell you which of the two major parties is the “conservative” one.
So, while many Americans may not like those durn liberals, a significant majority of the electorate fully supports the center-left agenda advanced by the liberal wing of today’s Democratic Party, with the exception of a few issues of God, guns and gettin’ it on.
This should be obvious; the flip-side of Waldman’s assertion is that two-thirds of Americans do know which party is more progressive, and not only did Obama just repaint the electoral map running on the most progressive platform in 15 years, but Congressional Dems surfed their second consecutive “wave” election.
But the hard data back up the obvious. Let’s review:
- As Robert Borosage of Campaign for America’s Future, wrote of the his group’s poll (PDF), “When asked why they voted for Obama, the leading reasons were his proposals for withdrawing troops from Iraq, cutting middle class taxes first, providing affordable health care, and his commitment to invest in education and make college more affordable. When those who voted for Obama were asked about their doubts about McCain, picking Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin led the list, but fear that he would give tax breaks to the rich and big corporations came in second, followed by the notion that he would continue Bush’s policies.”
- A number of polls in recent years have shown that Americans favor raising the minimum wage by about a 4 to 1 margin
- A poll commissioned by Time Magazine in July, found that a “notable trend is the emerging popularity of environmental regulation as an economic imperative. Stricter pollution limits and tax credits for alternative energy development were supported by 84 percent of all respondents, the highest of any proposal. Increasing the minimum wage, expanding public works projects were nearly as popular, with 83 percent and 82 percent approval respectively.”
- It must have hurt the Wall Street Journal’s editorial staff to report that 62 percent of Americans said “The government should tax the wealthy more.” According to a Pew Poll, the same number favored either repealing all of Bush’s “temporary” tax cuts, or at least those skewed towards the wealthiest. Only one in four said that Bush’s cuts should become permanent.
- Summing up the findings of a post-election report released by Public Citizen that found that there had been a net increase in Congress of at least 30 seats by “fair trade” supporters, Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch division, said, “The 2008 election was a veritable tipping point for fair-trade issues, which just reinforces what polls have increasingly shown: The public has had it with the current race-to-the-bottom trade and globalization model, and they voted against those who support it and for those who say they will replace it.”
- A poll by Hart Research (PDF) found that voters in 7 crucial battleground states favored the Employee Free Choice Act — pro-union legislation detested by the corporate right — by nearly a 3 to 1 margin.
- In response to the first round of ‘center-right’ country blather after the 2006 midterm sweep, Media Matters compiled a moutain of data on the issue, including:
- By a 23-point margin, Americans say the government should “provide more services/ more spending” rather than “cut services/ cut spending.”
- By a 34-point margin, Americans agree that we “need strong government to handle complex problems” rather than believing the “free market can handle complex economic problems without government involvement.”
- Americans agree with the idea that “government should reduce income differences” by a 12-point spread.
- According to a Gallup Poll taken last spring, 5 percent of Americans said corporate taxes were too high, compared with 71 percent who thought they were too low
- According to a report from the nonprofit polling group Public Agenda and Foreign Affairs magazine, “When respondents were asked to rate a series of strategies for the degree to which they would strengthen the nation’s security, the top-ranking moves were “Improving the effectiveness of our intelligence operations” (with 63 percent saying it would enhance our security a great deal) and “Becoming less dependent on other countries for our supply of energy” (55 percent). Only 17 percent said “Attacking countries that develop weapons of mass destruction” would enhance our security a great deal, the lowest-scoring strategy in the group. Forty-two percent said “Showing more respect for the views and needs of other countries” would enhance our security a great deal.”
- According to Gallup, on the question of military spending, “43 percent [of respondents] say we are spending too much, compared to 35 percent who say we are spending the right amount, and only 20 percent who say we are spending too little.”
- A Pew poll conducted just prior to the 2006 election found that, by “a 45% to 32% margin, more Americans believe that the best way to reduce the threat of terrorist attacks on the U.S. is to decrease, not increase, America’s military presence overseas.”
- According to an ABC News/ Washington Post poll conducted in June, Americans, by more than a 2 to one margin, thought “providing health care coverage for all Americans, even if it means raising taxes” was more important than “holding down taxes.” According to a May poll by Quinnipiac University, 61 percent of Americans thought it “the government’s responsibility to make sure that everyone in the United States has adequate health care,” while 35 percent disagreed.
- And, of course, as it has been since the program was launched by FDR, a significant majority of Americans like their Social Security just the way it is; a CNN poll conducted last month found that Americans opposed partially privatizing the program — a key conservative proposal — by a 26-point margin.
Center-right country, indeed. The reality is that if it weren’t for the social issues and racist dog-whistles, conservatives would have a hard time running for dog-catcher outside of a few rock-ribbed regressive enclaves.
The take-away for thinking people is that while the corporate media performs an absolutely vital function in reporting the basic facts of our electoral contests — who the players are, where they’re appearing, what they’re saying and all the minutiae of fund-raising and other matters of process — most of their analysis is utterly ridiculous.
All the more reason that it’s high time we simply start ignoring the punditocracy.
A correction was made to this article after publication.
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