Please Abandon the Myth of the Center-Right Nation

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.

A Serious Question

One of the newest conservative talking points I've heard from various right-wing pundits is that, despite their landslide electoral losses, this is still a "center-right country". At the same time, a fellow named Wakefield Tolbert has been carrying on something of an argument with @bdul muHib on the comments section of the post about homeschooling. I say "something of an argument" because it's very difficult to track what exactly Wakefield is talking about. I challenge someone to summarize his arguments for him into some concise, coherent form. Anyway, when challenged about the impenetrability of his writing he dismissed @bdul and myself by associating us with the "liberal chimpanzees" over at I will freely admit to being a liberal, and this isn't the first time my opinions have been wholly discounted for it, but in the context of this new talking point about this being a center-right country, I want to know what "liberal" means to conservatives, what conservatism means in the wake of the Bush presidency, and where this notion of center-right comes from.

This is a genuine question. Bill Bishop, in his excellent blog during the election titled "The Big Sort", explained very convincingly that we choose our politics as a consequence of our lifestyles, and, more and more, we are moving to live near people like us; hence the political and geographical polarization in our country. Bishop referenced some study that showed that conservatives are better at understanding where liberals are coming from than vice-versa. At first I frowned at that. We're liberals. We're touchy-feely. We like to understand other points of view. So how is it we can't understand our conservative neighbors as well as they understand us? But the more I thought about it, the more I had to admit that it's true, at least in my case. I just can't wrap my mind around the apparent contradictions I see coming from the conservative side, and I fail to see those same contradictions on my own side of the fence. So I'm asking for help.

To keep things relatively simple, let's see if we can even agree on definitions. Conservatives, going back to Buckley, figured out that they needed to distill their vision down to ten words. Those were:

Strong Defense
Free Markets
Lower Taxes
Smaller Government
Family Values

George Lakoff proposed these ten words as the progressive values:

Stronger America
Broad Prosperity
Better Future
Effective Government
Mutual Responsibility

I think those are both pretty decent summaries of the values upon which conservatives and liberals base their policy proposals, but I'm sure we could quibble about the wording, and I'd have no problem with that, because these small, nuance difference have huge consequences. Think this is just semantics? Think about the difference in opinion when you ask people what they think about estate taxes on the wealthy vs. death taxes on business owners. Or torture vs. enhanced interrogation techniques.

When I look at the list of values, I can see why liberals like me are so pissed off at Bush. He has not made America stronger in the world by any measure. Prosperity has grown only among the tiniest sliver at the top. Our future looks much bleaker than it did eight years ago. Our government has proven itself to be woefully incompetent on a number of fronts. And some Americans are paying very heavy tolls for all Bush's mistakes (too many have paid the ultimate price) while others have only been asked to do a bit more shopping. For a liberal, his record is dismal.

But how do conservatives see it? Bush, according to every military expert I've read, has stretched our military to the breaking point, all the while ratcheting up our need for military strength in the world, making us that much more vulnerable. His emphasis on free markets not only showed the dangers of deregulation, but then he abandoned those principles to bail out the banking industry. He lowered taxes on the wealthy, but did so while growing the federal deficit to such a degree that it's not really a tax cut but a differed tax increase on the next generation that will put every tax increase ever proposed by any other president to shame by comparison. He created the single largest bureaucracy in the history of the federal government in the form of Homeland Security, and oversaw that greatest expansion in the size of the federal government of any president. He appears to have stuck to his guns on issues of family values, but this has shown in stark relief that these family values are focused almost exclusively on limiting gay rights and protecting the unborn: Even Bush's greatest accomplishment in office, his increase in aid to Africa, is mitigated by the fact that he stipulated that none of the money could go to clinics which provided abortion or even contraception. For those of us who think decisions like these are best made between a woman, her doctor, and her God, Bush's insertion of his own agenda into women's health decisions in the third world means his definition of family values is very... focused. Add to this an elective war where as many as a million Americans and Iraqis have died, a million members of families lost in a war that didn't need to happen, and this definition of family values strikes us liberals as completely vacuous. But what do conservatives think?

And here's the thing; while the conservative talking heads keep saying this is a center-right country, on almost every issue I can think of, the polling data doesn't back them up. Most Americans believe a woman should have a right to make her own reproductive health choices. Most Americans think this war was wrong. Most Americans think the government's handling of Hurricane Katrina showed them to be inept. Most Americans think that the government should be doing more to help people suffering during this economic downturn (pro-Broad Prosperity) but are infuriated by the way it bailed out Wall Street (showing they're also pro-Free Markets, with limits). Most Americans want their government to provide more oversight of the financial sector.

Jon Stewart challenged a conservative guest on just this point (I think it was Mike Huckabee), arguing that the history of the United States has been one of slow but inexorable progress away from bigotry and aristocracy toward pluralism and inclusiveness. When conservatives say this is still a center-right country, are they just referencing our tendency to move toward social progress at a very slow pace? If so, then isn't conservatism just associating itself with every kind of prejudice and backward attitude we've had to struggle so hard to put behind us? What am I not seeing which will help me understand conservatism?

And what is it I don't see about liberalism which dictates that a conservative can apply that label to me and dismiss everything I have to say? What can a conservative see, that I can't, which would explain such antipathy toward liberalism?