Commentary Magazine


Still a Center-Right Nation

In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, I wrote that while Republicans will, in all likelihood, take a drubbing next week, America remains a center-right nation. In response, some people have asked how one squares this claim with a likely Obama presidency and a commanding Democratic majority in the House and the Senate. The question is a fair one, and offers me a chance to elaborate on the assertion I made.

The fact is that, since winning the nomination, Obama has (as I tried to demonstrate in my Post op-ed) tacked right–in some instances substantively and in almost all instances rhetorically–on a host of issues. To take just one: Obama favors expanding our armed forces by 92,000, which is a dramatically different stance from, say, the one George McGovern took in 1972. Obama has also eschewed the label “liberal” as if it were a contagion. And any number of polls, from Newsweek to a recent Battleground poll, find that, by a substantial margin, the public identifies itself as conservative rather than liberal.

In addition, we ought not to forget how much the country has moved in a conservative direction in recent decades. No Democrat is running on repealing welfare reform or retreating on anti-crime initiatives. Nor are Democrats running on an anti-gun platform, racial set-asides, or urging that we raise the marginal tax rate to 70 percent (which it was when Ronald Reagan became president). On immigration, there is widespread agreement on the need to secure our Southern border. Offshore drilling has more support than ever. There is fairly widespread agreement on the need for higher standards in education, merit pay, and public school choice (including charter schools).

Beyond that are more subtle, but equally important, shifts in attitudes toward everything from the military (for which there is enormous respect) to divorce (it is no longer seen as an insignificant and harmless act, especially when it comes to the children touched by it) to drugs (which are seen as dangerous rather than liberating).

That said, America is not, and never has been, a particularly ideological nation. Its citizens are not steeped in Burke or Kirk, Hayek or von Mises. American conservatism tends to be dispositional and instinctive rather than philosophical and systematic. And if you compare America to, say, most of Europe (and much of the industrialized world), we believe the role of government in the life of our nation should be limited. To call someone in America a socialist is considered a provocation; in Europe, it is simply descriptive, often merely an appellation attached to a political party (like the Social Democrats).

America is also a much more religious nation than most European countries, and we tend to view foreign policy through the lens of morality rather than simply geopolitical considerations.

This doesn’t mean that Americans are not, in some important respects, operationally liberal. They often support increases in spending for particular programs, even though they are for “less spending” in the abstract. Nor does it mean that America hasn’t moved left on some issues, including gay rights and the environment. And Americans tend to favor government activism in the midst of certain kinds of economic turmoil (from the Great Depression to, arguably, the recent credit crisis).

Mostly, though, their views tend to be pragmatic and results-oriented. Their views of government depend on facts and circumstances. When it comes to welfare, crime, and education, for example, they are less concerned with the size of government than its efficacy.

Finally, on the matter of the elections: of course they matter. But elections are often the result of different factors – from the quality of individual candidates, to a referendum on the competence of political parties, to the issue set that dominates the public mind, to other things. Republicans and conservatives should bear in mind that in 1992, Bill Clinton won the presidency and Democrats controlled the Senate by a 12-seat margin, with a House majority of 258 to 176. It would have been easy to assume, as many people did, that the age of conservatism was dead. Yet two years later, because of liberal overreach on issues like health care and gays in the military, Newt Gingrich helped engineer a historic election in which Republicans won 54 House seats and took control of that chamber for the first time in a half-century.

I don’t think America lurched from being a philosophically liberal to a philosophically conservative country in the course of 24 months. Instead, it made a judgment about the governing results of Democrats–whom they had been led to believe would govern like “New Democrats”–and found it wanting. As a result, President Clinton tacked to the center and, with the help of a strong economy, won re-election by a comfortable margin.

If Senator Obama wins the election and decides to govern as a liberal, he will soon encounter resistance from the public and generate a great deal of unhappiness. That wouldn’t happen for a while, of course. Every president gets a honeymoon. But that ends soon enough, and the public would eventually hold Obama–and the Democratic Congress–to account.

If Obama and the Democrats do sweep to victory on Tuesday, they will discover that running a campaign is a lot easier than running a country, and that promising “change” is not nearly as hard as enacting it in a way that advances prosperity, our national security, and the common good.

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