Over the next few days, if you pay attention to the election post-game show, you will inevitably hear them use the phrase “Center-Right Nation.” They will use it to explain why Obama won. They will use it to explain why Romney lost. They will use it to explain that Obama won in spite of this fact. They will use it to explain that Romney lost in spite of this fact.
But it’s not a fact. It’s not even a lie, per se. It’s just label devoid of context. It’s only a myth in the sense that some Greek deity is a myth, a character who doesn’t really exist interacting within a pantheon that doesn’t really exist. Except that’s being too generous, because there might be a Zeus or an Athena, and they might live on a Mount Olympus somewhere. “Center-Right,” without some context, doesn’t mean anything, anywhere.
So, every time you hear a pundit use the phrase, shout at your television. Scream, “BS!” or “Bollocks!” or “Cockamamie malarkey!” (if you’re Joe Biden). Flip your TV the bird. Take off a shoe and throw it at the set. Tweet #CallinBullshit and tell people what network is still floating this garbage. But whatever you do, don’t let this slide.
Here’s how you know it’s a lie: Imagine someone was trying to give you driving directions. They told you to go down three blocks, turn left on Monroe St., and find the third house on your left, the one with the red door and the white fence, with the number 7597 on the mailbox. You could get there, right? Now imagine they told you to drive three blocks down to the ocean, then make a right heading south down the coast, and look for a houseboat that isn’t tied to the docks. The boat is adrift in a moving sea, it changes its distance from the shore based on the tide, and it’s generally headed north. It was last seen in your town about five presidencies ago. Do you honestly expect to find it there now, just because they waved vaguely in the direction of the ocean and told you to go to the “Center-Right”? No. Freakin’. Way.
My analogy is actually an oversimplification. If the houseboat is America and it is drifting slowly to the north on a changing political sea, the analogy implies that at least the land is fixed and you have control over your own position on that fixed ground. In fact, there’s an active earthquake fault line in that area and you have a sever inner ear condition. We can only know the position of the boat relative to where the land used to be, and we can only interpret that in relation to which way our ear is causing us to lean that day. Now, can you honestly say the boat will consistently be found in the “Center-Right” of this universe?
I’ve tried to give these pundits the benefit of the doubt. (My wife says that’s a bad habit of mine.) If the statement is meaningful, maybe they are referring to some kind of global political spectrum in which the U.S. is near the middle, but slightly to the right, of the other countries in the world. This just doesn’t add up, though. We’re to the right of many countries, but their politics are in flux. For example, countries in Europe have institutions like national health services which imply they are more left-wing than we are. However, these same countries, when faced with almost identical economic pressures during our most recent housing collapse and the ensuing recession, chose austerity programs that were far more right-wing than anything our citizens would have tolerated. While they slashed government spending, we developed a Tea Party that quickly grew to focus on social issues and which succeeded only in knocking moderate Republicans out of their primaries, thus ensuring the passage of Obamacare and a Democratic majority in the Senate that could make sure it wouldn’t go away even if Mitt Romney won the presidential election. In short, our response has been more left wing, and not because of our President, but because our right-wingers couldn’t capture a majority in a time when a left-wing program was being enacted. In relation to Europe, America had a left-wing response.
For that matter, why do we measure our political spectrum on a continuum that stretches from the Netherlands on the left to Saudi Arabia on the right? I was under the impression that comparing ourselves to the modern countries of the “Old World,” or to any foreign country, was somehow un-American.
Still trying to give these pundits the benefit of the doubt, I imagined they were putting modern America in a historical context, somewhere between Mussolini’s Italy on the right and Mao’s People’s Republic on the left. But this historical model doesn’t work, either. Most positions held by modern Americans related to the enfranchisement of voters, the role of government in public life, and the relationship between the state and religion, for example, would all have been considered wildly left-wing at some point in history. Women and minorities voting? Crazy liberal idea. Religious pluralism and tolerance? Nutso liberal. Public libraries and schools? Left-wing extremism. But America didn’t normalize these ideas through a left-wing revolution (well, maybe we normalized the liberal idea of voting rather than obeying a king through a left-wing revolution, and maybe we ended slavery through an incredibly bloody civil war, but most of the mainstreaming of these liberal ideas happened more peacefully and more slowly). Now these ideas aren’t liberal. They are the norm. Not only did the country drift on a slow tide toward a more inclusive, tolerant, and activist political structure, but the culture shifted around these ideas. Furthermore, we are products of that culture, so we moved around in that cultural milieu, such that a woman could run as a vice-presidential candidate and not think of her candidacy as the product of a million liberal victories. From where she was standing, she felt like a conservative (and looked like it to the rest of us).
American can’t be “Center-Right,” because wherever America is, that’s its center currently. A few years ago, the political center was firmly opposed to gay marriage. Karl Rove was able to use it as a wedge issue to get his base to the polls and put George W. Bush into the White House. But that wasn’t a center-right position. That won. It was the center. As of last night, gay marriage is winning. It is becoming the center. Does that mean we’re a “Center-Left” nation? No. In thirty or forty years, our children will be standing on different ground, looking out at a different sea, leaning whichever way their inner-ear conditions cause them to lean, but I would bet good money that if they are told where the houseboat of America sailed back in 2012, they’d say it was a far-right position wherein only a few states allowed gay marriage, something that will be so normal they won’t even consider it up for public debate.
In one last, desperate attempt to believe the TV blowhards were using a term that meant something, I considered the possibility that they were speaking about the rate of change Americans generally find tolerable. Maybe they mean we keep moving that center to the left, but we do so slowly because we’ve got some kind of right-wing ideology written into our genetic code. Our history doesn’t bare that idea out, either. Sometimes the boat moves quickly, as it has with gay marriage. Sometimes the boat moves very slowly. Slavery lasted for hundreds of years in North America, and it was followed by Jim Crow. Even with a second term African-American President, we still carry the vestiges of deep seeded racism within our culture. It’s not the law anymore. It’s not a basis for public policy. It’s not even socially acceptable for the majority of Americans. But it’s not gone. On that front, we’ve moved very slowly to the left. Our national xenophobia has refocused on people from different countries of origin as every passing generation tried to burn the bridges behind them by calling the next wave of immigrants an unfair burden on the system. In that way, the ocean stays in place and the land moves. We go back and forth from isolationism to the flexing of military muscle like we’re riding the tides. Religious minorities go from cults to the mainstream in waves. But at every point, whether we’re isolationists who are concerned about Catholic Irish Immigrants or hawks slamming the doors on Mexicans and looking down our noses at Scientologists, that’s not left or right. It’s just the center.
As of yesterday, America picked a guy who some portion of the population consider a socialist. Does that make us a “Center-Left” nation? Oh, and as of last night, he was still African American. Does electing a black guy still qualify as a left-wing idea? We didn’t elect the Mormon guy. Does that make us right-wing evangelicals? And we’re still about as polarized as we were going into the Civil War. Does that mean the Union and the Confederacy met in the middle and were all centrists?
Labeling our whole country as “Center-Right,” is meaningless, and worse, it’s creates a false picture that whatever is right-wing today hold some kind of sway over the national psyche. If anything, our country is Progressive, but it’s making progress in fits and starts toward some far off goal that we haven’t defined and which won’t fall neatly into our current definitions of right and left.
Elections tell us where we are. Pundits who try to tell us that we are, at our core, somewhere to the right or left of that position are invariably wrong. You aren’t to the left or right of where you sit reading this right now. America isn’t to the left or right of itself, either.