Thursday, December 4, 2008

Center-right or center-left?

There are two competing trends in the political blogsophere these days following the dramatic victory of Barack Obama over John McCain.

The right wing claims that the United States remains a center-right nation, and that Obama's election by so many center-right people is a signal that he ought to govern from the right. The left wing, in contrast, claims that Obama's election majority is proof that the tides have turned, that the US is now a center-left nation, and that Obama should feel free to pursue a liberal agenda.

Obama will pursue whatever agenda he will pursue, and I am not concerned with that here. I want to deal with this idea that the majority of Americans are either center-right or center-left in overall ideology. Put simply, I think the answer to this question turns on whether one uses the words right and left in their historical and global sense, or in the anomalous sense of American politics today.

If we define, as many Americans today might, left as "liberal" and right as "conservative," then polls clearly show that on most issues the US leans somewhat left. As of 2007, 84% of Americans favor raising the minimum wage, 52% support unions over corporations in labor disputes, 69% believe the government should provide welfare services, 59% favor bigger government to solve bigger problems, and 67% favor stronger government to handle complex problems. Only one in three Americans wants to see Roe v. Wade overturned, and two in three want more than abstinence-only sex education. Seventy-six percent of Americans would repeal Bush's tax cuts for universal health care.

The problem here is that, by historical and global standards, these aren't particularly left-wing positions. They are positions of the center that even many conservatives from other countries would agree on. I'm currently reading The Right Nation, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge; their opening overview of the conservatism of other developed nations is amusing, as you see how what other countries consider radically conservative is by our standards daily business. American-style conservatism is virtually unprecedented in the modern world.

So the difficulty with using the liberal-conservative standard of right and left is that while American liberals aren't near the radical left, conservatives are extremely close to the right end. How much farther right could you go than the right wing of the Republicans? Depending on which aspect of right-wingness you're talking about, they're just a stone's throw from alternately imperial fascism, anarcho-capitalism, or Dominionist theocracy. Even the Republican mainstream is a little scared of these guys.

But on the left, the Democrats are nowhere near radical left positions by any standard. There are actual socialist parties that get reasonably large percentages of the vote in most developed nations—France's longest-serving president, in office during Reagan and Bush's abhorrent leadership of our country, was a socialist. We can argue over just how leftist these socialist parties truly are, but they're far more leftist than even the most liberal American Democrats. The idea that America's "left wing" is (still!) calling for a privatized, market-based approach to universal health insurance is laughable by the standards of any true left. It was the "center-left" Bill Clinton that signed the right-wing dream NAFTA treaty, approved the Defense of Marriage Act, and gutted the welfare system.

American readers must take the use by politicians and pundits of terms like "left" and "right" with a tremendous grain of salt, because the range of mainstream political opinion is extremely narrow. America is still very much a center-right nation. We just call the center the left and make believe the moderate conservatives are really in the middle.

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