The myth of the center-right

Senator Sherrod Brown

Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio says that too many pundits and Democratic leaders pose a false choice “between fighting for our progressive values or winning elections.” He should know. He has one of the most progressive voting records in Congress yet he won re-election in 2018 by seven points in a state that supported Donald Trump by almost double digits in 2016.

He says, “Elections aren’t about some ‘electability’ calculation — they are about one question: Whose side are you on? Are you on the side of corporations or workers? Wall Street or consumers? Drug companies or patients?

The mainstream media identify folks like Michael Bloomberg, Joe Biden and Howard Schultz as the sensible, pragmatic centrists who are the most electable.

In an article on The Intercept, Mehdi Hasan argues that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are the actual centrists since they advocate for policies supported by the vast majority of Americans. He cites many public opinion polls on a wide variety of issues.

Hasan wonders if “the center ground” really exists. “It moves, it shifts, it reacts to events,” he says. “The center of 2019 is not the center of 1999 or even 2009.”

Eric Levitz, political writer for New York Magazine, is sure there is no center. He says there aren’t very many voters who hold consistently liberal or conservative ideological views. He explains: “Public opinion varies across more than one ideological dimension. There are a good number of people in America who support increasing Social Security benefits and banning Muslims from immigrating to the United States. Which shouldn’t be surprising, given that there is no inherent contradiction between those two beliefs.”

He cites a 2014 study by Berkeley political scientists David Broockman and Douglas Ahler who surveyed voters on 13 policy issues. They offered them seven distinct positions to choose from on each, which ranged from very liberal to very conservative. The centrist position was the most popular on only two issues (gay rights and the environment)

On marijuana, the most popular policy was complete legalization. On immigration, the largest number of people supported “the immediate roundup and deportation of all undocumented immigrants and an outright moratorium on all immigration until the border is proven secure.” On taxes, the most popular proposal was to increase the rate on income above $250,000 by more than 5%. The third most favored policy was to tax all income above $1 million at 100%.

So if a politician advocated those positions, would he or she be considered a centrist? Not really.

Levitz notes that when pundits urge Democrats to be middle of the road, they are urging them “to embrace a combination of moderate fiscal conservatism, a cosmopolitan attitude toward globalization, and moderate social liberalism — in short, to become the party of Michael Bloomberg. … The former New York mayor is routinely referred to as a centrist in the mainstream press, despite the fact that his policy commitments — support for Social Security cuts, Wall Street deregulation, mass immigration and marriage equality — when taken together, put him at the fringes of American public opinion.”

A study of the 2016 electorate by political scientist Lee Drutman found that voters who had Bloomberg’s politics (right of center on economic issues and left of center on “identity” issues) was only 3.8%.

David Broockman told Vox’s Ezra Klein in 2014, “When we say moderate what we really mean is what corporations want. … Within both parties there is this tension between what the politicians who get more corporate money and tend to be part of the establishment want — that’s what we tend to call moderate — versus what the Tea Party and more liberal members want.”

If the Democratic nominee advocates a Michael Bloomberg style of politics, Donald Trump will win. Very few voters have any ideology, but a majority of Americans consistently support a left-of-center economic agenda when they are polled on particular policy questions.

Levitz cites Drutman’s analysis that “73.5% of 2016 voters espoused broadly liberal views on economic policy. If people voted solely on the basis of their intuitions about how government should intervene in the economy (when interrogated about such matters by pollsters), Democrats would dominate all levels of government.”

But that isn’t how most folks vote. They view politics through the lens of group identity (religion, ethnicity or race, region, class) rather than an abstract philosophy of government.

Levitz argues that the Democrats “should do the pragmatic thing in 2020, and wage a vicious class war.” He mentions Boston University political scientist Spencer Piston and his 2018 book, Class Attitudes in America.

Piston studied the “open-ended responses” section of the 2008 American National Election Studies (ANES) survey of voters and found that the electorate is a great deal more class-conscious and populist (in the original progressive sense) than portrayed in the media.

A majority of Americans in the survey said that the rich “have more money than they deserve” and expressed sympathy for the poor, while large pluralities were comfortable saying, unequivocally, that they felt “resentment” toward the wealthy.

Levitz notes that Piston’s research is buttressed by many polls that show that a supermajority of Americans want big tax hikes on the rich. So we have a moderate middle and they want to soak the rich.  

this opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.