Is America Still a Center-Right Nation?

Before Mitt Romney’s election night belly flop was complete, the big question was thrown before the deans and doyennes of political television for hearty discussion. It is a question that will doubtlessly inspire altogether too much jejune navel gazing and surely more than two dozen books before the next president is chosen: Is America now a center-left nation?

Throughout the modern era, the conventional wisdom has been that regardless of partisan label, American voters are ideologically center-right. The mythical voter at the absolute middle of the electorate favored lower taxes, a strong defense, welfare reform, gun rights, and capital punishment. These issues limited Democrats’ ability to hold swing districts and states. More recently, it has led to the successful recruitment and promotion of moderate, pro-business, tough on crime candidates within their party … But it is now abundantly clear that America is a center-left nation, and healthy majorities of the American people agree with Mr. Obama’s liberal economic policies.

My apologies. I have altered the name of the Republican candidate. I wrote this in November 2008, in the wake of John McCain’s defeat.

My conclusion then: voters who favored small government and liberty “found themselves outnumbered… by voters who are tired of the status quo, who have heard no case for the free market on the national stage in a generation, and who want to give Mr. Obama’s policies a shot, and see what happens. Voters who remember the latter part of the 1970s have little interest in reenacting them. But the advantage of repeating history is knowledge of what’s coming. As Walker Percy once wrote: ‘According to the opinion polls, it looks as if you may get your way. But you’re not going to have it both ways. You’re going to be told what you’re doing.’”

So, four years later: how do you answer the question? I will offer my answer at AEI next Friday.

  1. J.Voss
    California voted to maintain the Death Penalty last night.  But it also raised taxes and, *shudders*, sent Scott Peters to congress (CA52). Oh, and nearly 20 million fewer people voted this time around… 

    So center-right, I no longer think so.  We are now just ‘center’.  A nation which votes ‘present’.

  2. Owl of Minerva

    Short Answer: No.

    Long Answer: No, it is not.

    Most Americans do not hold independent ideological views. They prioritize certain issues or values and then respond to party messages concerning those issues and values. The 30% of both the GOP and the Democrats churn, even as the growing independent voter category reflects a public ethos to reserve judgment combined with hostility for the overall political process.

    In other words, I reject the premise that Americans could be one thing and not another. When the electorate shrinks to base elections during mid-terms, for example, the electorate shifts to the extremes. In 2006, that was good for Democrats. For 2010, the GOP. During this election, we saw what we could call a depressed electorate. Fewer people voted overall, and those who did were unenthusiastic about their choices. On the state level, we saw some return to normalcy.

    The center-right mythology started during the Bush 43 years back when the man was still popular enough to see him as a capstone to the Reagan Revolution–right before 2006. It enabled pathological complaining for when the GOP loses, to our detriment. Rob Long’s list of lessons are instructive on this point.

  3. Thom Williams

    The generation under 30 is far, far more left than the previous couple of generations were at that age. They also don’t see the GOP as the party of the happy warrior, Reagan. They see the GOP as the party of war mongers and crony capitalists, and the demonized face of George Bush is what they associate with conservatives. So yes, the people over 30 are still center-right. Unfortunately those under 30 are very hard left.

  4. No Caesar

    Yes, in that the Center has been moved materially Leftward. 

  5. KC Mulville

    Yes, center-left – because of demographics.

    This isn’t the first time my beliefs have been defeated, or that other ideas proved more popular. That’s OK. I believe in them anyway. I don’t believe what I believe because of popularity.

    However, I now doubt the proposition that people can be rationally persuaded — either way. Demographics seem to dictate votes, far more than any political theory. Obama certainly didn’t win because of economic success.

    I can’t control what other people think, and I can’t control demographics. My only alternative is to explain why I believe things, and compare them to how other ideas fare.

    This election shows that other ideas are popular, even if they aren’t succeeding. I sincerely believe that the emergency measures that stopped the 2008 freefall were already in place by the first couple months of 2009. Obama didn’t stop the freefall, because it had already been stopped. Instead, Obama’s real responsibility is the recovery – and there isn’t one. I suspect that four more years won’t do any better.

    Beliefs are not dictated, therefore, by actual experience. They’re dictated by demographics, and the demographics have changed.

  6. MichaelC19fan

    This election was a decisive step towards America becoming like Europe with a Social Democratic majority. We have imported a lower class through immigration and created wards of the state through a 40% illegitimacy rate.

  7. Crow

    I basically agree, Ben.

    Last night the nation, schizophrenically when you consider the right track/wrong track polling, decided not only to ratify the course we’re on, but decided to entrench the status quo with Republicans holding 1/2 of 1/3 of the government (because, hey, why not, that arrangement has functioned so well the past two years). An argument could be made that the Senate is now more liberal than it was when Obama took office in 2008. We no longer naturally incline to small government–and the “center” has moved left.

    America the country remains, but a majority of Americans decided last night that they want social democracy with all its tasty trappings, with all its petty comforts. 

  8. Hartmann von Aue

    No. But the Free Republic of Texas is :).

  9. Gus Marvinson

    This is what I said in Rob’s We Got Beat post from last night:

    Enough of this “center-right” nonsense. To succeed, we are taught, we must aim high. Set great goals, strive toward them and reap the rewards. Yet when it comes to politics we are told center-right is the goal and center-right will be the result.

    Hogwash.

    We on the right have been talked into ceding our values over and over and over again. To what end? According to these election results we are now a center-left nation. 

    To those who insist on the wisdom of the center-right mantra: guess what? A move to the center is a move left and that’s where we are now. Center-right is weak tea.

    I’m a Christian conservative. A right-winger in every category. Maybe that will make me a perennial loser, but I’m losing with you center-right people anyway, so if I’m going to lose I might as well keep my principles intact.

    A few hours sleep has reinforced the sentiment.

  10. LeachCP

    This was the same question on my mind when I woke up this morning. I’m sure the election hangover is influencing my reasoning, but last night does appear to be a referendum shifting leftward.  Government has been increasingly expanding but seemingly in spite of the people, rather caused by a powerful bureaucracy ever seeking more power. Last night, the people actually voted validating the bureaucracy and to increase government.

    I’m not sure Romney and the Republicans broke it down that simply, I wish they had or wish the American people listened if they did.

  11. FloppyDisk90

    I never bought into the center-right meme.  IMHO, this country has been drifting left ever since we elected FDR to a second term.  “Moderates” are simply liberal squishes.  Agree with Gus, et. al., regarding strategy from here on out.

  12. Misthiocracy
    Ben Domenech:

    Voters who remember the latter part of the 1970s have little interest in reenacting them. 

    In 2016, people born in the 1980s will be eligible to run for office.

  13. Devereaux

    Perhaps the better question is whether America is still a “nation” – or just a geographic identity.

    There is no “center” anything. You are either Left or Right. The numbers prove it.

  14. Keith Keystone

    I think the center-left vs center-right discussion misses the point.  

    How many of the voters yesterday could point to Israel on a map? How many know what the tax rates are? How many have a deep understanding of Obamacare? Very very few. 

    The people didn’t vote for this President because they like his policies. They don’t understand the policies, and don’t care. They voted for someone who makes them feel good. That is what Republicans need to understand. Enough with the Bob Doles, Newt Gingriches, Dick Cheneys, John McCains and Mitt Romneys. None of those guys have a clue how to win the hearts of people. Reagan knew how to do it. Obama knows how to do it.  

    I firmly believe that voters are not rejecting conservatism as much as they are rejecting those who are carrying the banner of conservatism. And, as a result, conservatism is given a bad name. People associate it with Rick Santorum, a guy walking around in a sweater vest. 

  15. Esau

    Yes, the United States has taken another hard left turn this year.

    And there will be no undoing it in 2014 or 2016 or any other election year, unless there is during Obama’s second term an economic and fiscal collapse and a major war. Simply teaching the voters basic economics will not be enough. They had their shot on Obama’s economic and fiscal policies that last four years. They learned nothing, even in the school of hard knocks. What makes you think send them a copy of Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson is going to make any difference?

  16. Ronaldus Maximus

    We are most certainly not Center-Right. I thought 2010 was a move to the Right and Romney would win big last night. I was completely out of touch wrong. I’ve been waiting for a bellwether election that will settle if we are truly Center-Right or Center-Left. While I still would like a more conservative candidate than we’ve had who can present a clear dichotomy, last night was clarifying enough for me.

    In truth, this country has not been truly conservative since the Coolidge administration. While I love Reagan, the GOP and Conservative movement needs to stop romanticizing his presidency as as the gilded age of Conservatism. It was a minor, and increasingly insignificant correction to the Right, in an otherwise long and steady trajectory Left.

    The only possible way out of this is that the current unsustainable system collapses and out of that nightmare people are willing to return to founding principles. I’m not betting on that. We’ll get more government and less freedom.

  17. Ronaldus Maximus
    Keith Keystone: I think the center-left vs center-right discussion misses the point.

    The people didn’t vote for this President because they like his policies. They don’t understand the policies, and don’t care. They voted for someone who makes them feel good. That is what Republicans need to understand. Enough with the Bob Doles, Newt Gingriches, Dick Cheneys, John McCains and Mitt Romneys. None of those guys have a clue how to win the hearts of people. Reagan knew how to do it. Obama knows how to do it.  

    I firmly believe that voters are not rejecting conservatism as much as they are rejecting those who are carrying the banner of conservatism. And, as a result, conservatism is given a bad name. People associate it with Rick Santorum, a guy walking around in a sweater vest. 

    If this is true, then the country is doomed. A country consumed with style over substance isn’t going to embrace the tough choices necessary to fix the fundament problems we face. It will continue to choose the easy path into oblivion.

  18. nomdeplume
    Keith Keystone:

    The people didn’t vote for this President because they like his policies. They don’t understand the policies, and don’t care. They voted for someone who makes them feel good. That is what Republicans need to understand. Enough with the Bob Doles, Newt Gingriches, Dick Cheneys, John McCains and Mitt Romneys. None of those guys have a clue how to win the hearts of people. Reagan knew how to do it. Obama knows how to do it.  

    I firmly believe that voters are not rejecting conservatism as much as they are rejecting those who are carrying the banner of conservatism. 

    I couldn’t agree more.  It’s hard for those of us on Ricochet to put ourselves in the mindset of the typical “low information” voter, but we have to try.  The under 35 vote isn’t so much “left” in its beliefs, as it is entranced by the cultural zeitgeist of the hip, ethnic, swaggering personalities they marinate in on a daily basis.  Reagan was able to win the hearts and minds of an entirely different generation.  A new Reagan won’t look or sound like him.

  19. TheSophist

    Short answer: No, the US has a center-left electorate.

    Long answer by way of question: Why do you keep thinking there is an “America” that is one nation? What values and cultural mores and even leisure activities does a Chicago Obama voter have in common with you that he does not with a Canadian or a UK liberal?

    I genuinely want to know. What makes a conservative from South Carolina think of a progressive from Massachusetts as a fellow countryman?

  20. TheSophist
    Keith Keystone: 

    The people didn’t vote for this President because they like his policies. They don’t understand the policies, and don’t care. They voted for someone who makes them feel good. That is what Republicans need to understand.  · 45 minutes ago

    Edited 44 minutes ago

    What, then, is the point of the Republican party?

    The people rejected conservatism, because conservatism at its very core isn’t about “feeling good”. It’s about the opportunity to struggle and succeed, and perhaps to fail.

    If you want to soften that up somehow, and try to convince the gimme-electorate who just want to feel good that the harsh medicine we’re offering is actually candy… good luck with that.

    But what’s the point then? So we can win the “victory” of only a moderate amount of redistribution, instead of outright confiscation? Yeah, sign me up for that platform. I’m sure I can get passionate about that in 2016. Said no conservative ever.

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