A Center-Left Country

Tod Lindberg, a conservative and adviser to John McCain, realizes something that most conservatives are in denial about. While many conservatives think they lost because they weren’t conservative enough, Lindberg realizes they lost because the country has moved to the center-left:

We are now two elections into something big. This month’s drubbing is just the latest sign that the country’s political center of gravity is shifting from center-right to center-left. Republicans who fail to grasp this could be lost in the wilderness for years.

Here’s the stark reality: It is now harder for the Republican presidential candidate to get to 50.1 percent than for the Democrat. My Hoover Institution colleague David Brady and Douglas Rivers of the research firm YouGovPolimetrix have been analyzing data from online interviews with 12,000 people in both 2004 and 2008. It shows an overall shift to the Democrats of six percentage points. As they write in the forthcoming edition of Policy Review, “The decline of Republican strength occurs by having strong Republicans become weak Republicans, weak Republicans becoming independents, and independents leaning more Democratic or even becoming Democrats.” This is a portrait of an electorate moving from center-right to center-left.

Conservatives often cite polls showing that a minority identify themselves as liberals. This is most likley because the word liberal has been demonized by the right wing, leading many people to dislike the word regardless of whether  their views are actually liberal. Lindberg has an additional explanation:

True, the percentage of voters describing themselves as “liberal” and “conservative” has held relatively constant over many election cycles, with self-described liberals checking in at 22 percent this time around (up one percentage point over 2004) and self-described conservatives at 34 percent (unchanged from 2004). The numbers may not have changed, but the views behind those labels certainly have. Nowadays, it’s a fair bet that most of those calling themselves “liberal” support gay marriage. In 1980, those same liberals were, no doubt, cutting-edge supporters of gay rights, but the notion of same-sex marriage would have occurred only to the most avant-garde. In 1980, having a teenage daughter who was pregnant out of wedlock would have ruled you out for the No. 2 spot on the Democratic ticket. This year, it turned out to be a humanizing addition to the conservative vice presidential nominee’s résumé.


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    Jeremy Pober says:

    I agree with you that the labels liberal and conservative are misleading, but it is precisely this fact that causes me to question whether or not terms like ‘center-right’ and ‘center-left’ are similarly ambiguous. For instance, it seems that a person with static political views might have voted Republican in the past, but, due to the Republican shift to the right and Democratic shift to the center, might feel more comfortable voting Democratic now <em>despite having precisely the same political beliefs.</em> A good example to illustrate this point is voter beliefs on regulation of the financial sector: the same voter could, quite coherently, vote for less regulation (Republican) in 1980 and vote for more regulation now because she desires the same amount of regulation in both cases. I’ve written on this here. As you’ve suggested, perhaps this election constitutes a repudiation of the GOP rather than a real underlining shift. But these two ideas seem contradictory. What am I missing?

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    Ron Chusid says:


    The labels are ambiguous. In another post I accepted the idea that we are center-right–provided we use a more European definition and that we consider Democrats to be center-right. I went along with the terms here not so much because I was concerned with whether we apply a center-left label but to point out that a Republican is arguing that the GOP’s views are now out of the mainstream.

    Some quick random considerations on this topic (as I have a few minutes in which I can write at present):

    Prior to the financial crisis social issues and Iraq were often more important issues than economic issues which divided left from right in the past. In recent years right=supporters of the war, opponents of abortion rights, opponents of gay marriage, etc. Left meant the opposing views (but not necessarily left wing economics which might have separated the parties in the past).

    A majority opposes the Iraq war, which would put them on the left based on common use of labels. A majority want the government to do something to make health care coverage more available, which is also left. A majority probably opposes gay marriage but are still more open to civil unions and toleration of gays than in the past, suggesting a modest shift to the left.

    Since the economic crisis the economy has become a big issue, but the divisions are different than in the past. Both many Republicans and Democrats are backing more government action now than they would have under normal circumstances. While many Democrats and Republicans backed the bail out program, both the far right and far left opposed it, further confusing the differences between parties.

    Divisions between the parties may have some ideological component on economics, but it might be far more on perceived competence. Many voted for Obama because they thought he could do a better job than McCain, and from that perspective left v. right might not matter. On the other hand, many went along with the views of Obama as opposed to McCain on taxes, and are more open to increased government regulation (especially now) which could be considered left.

    An important difference is that while the Democrats and most people are roughly near the center, regardless of whether you want to call it center-right or center-left, the GOP has moved to the far right. Many voters are happy with either center-left or center-right, but have rejected the far right views of the Republican Party.

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    Jeremy Pober says:

    I agree with most of what you say, and pretty much everything after the “quick thoughts” aside. It is true that our country’s beliefs are to the right of most European countries, and it’s also true that issues taken up by the left have gained more acceptance over the past two decades.

    What I don’t see is the usefulness of using the terms center-left and center-right; I don’t see what they add to or how they clarify the discussion.
    If I had to choose between agreeing and disagreeing with those who claim the country is center-right, I, like you, disagree. It’s just that I don’t think those are our only two options.

    As I argue, philosopher of language P.F. Strawson concluded that sentences like “The Present King of France is Bald” are neither true nor false, but rather just incoherent: the present King of France, due to his nonexistence, is equally incapable of having a full head of hair as he is of being bald. I think sentences like “The US is a center-right country” fall into this category of incoherence rather than mere falsity, with the caveat that if they weren’t incoherent, that claim would be false and its opposite true.

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    Ron Chusid says:

    I wouldn’t call it incoherent. Lindberg makes a good case for calling the country center-left. While terms like left and right are ambiguous, we do have a general idea of what they mean.

    In this context, perhaps the most important reason for quoting Lindberg is in contrast to the conservatives who argue that this is a center-right country and therefore Obama is out of sync with the voters. The country is far closer to Obama’s views (regardless of whether you want to quibble over whether this is center-left) than they are to the far right views of the GOP.

    It does make sense to say the country is center-left as long as you don’t take it too far and recognize the limits of these terms and don’t think they are absoloute or fixed in stone. The country could be called center-right if you define it on European standards. We may have different issues in 2012 and perhaps we wouldn’t call the country center-left at that time. It is far more meaningful to discuss views on specific issues (also recognizing there will be a spectrum of thought) but for the purpose of articles such as Lindberg wrote, using center-left does work as a useful short hand.

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