The Argument: Are We, at Heart, a Center-Right Country--or Are We Heading Left Again?

In this week's dead-tree NEWSWEEK, editor Jon Meacham and columnist Jonathan Alter butt heads over the ideological direction of America. It's a fascinating debate. With Barack Obama on the brink of a potential victory and Democrats set to make serious gains in Congress, Meacham argues that America is, at heart, still a center-right country--and that an Obama presidency would be defined by how the Democrat deals with that reality. Alter, on the other hand, says that we're moving left, and that the challenge facing Obama is figuring out how to use the powers of government to act on behalf of the people--a liberal idea. I've excerpted both pieces below; the comments, as always, are all yours.


It is easy—for some, even tempting—to detect the dawn of a new progressive era in the autumn of Barack Obama's campaign for the presidency... But history, as John Adams once said of facts, is a stubborn thing, and it tells us that Democratic presidents from FDR to JFK to LBJ to Carter to Clinton usually wind up moving farther right than they thought they ever would, or they pay for their continued liberalism at the polls. Should Obama win, he will have to govern a nation that is more instinctively conservative than it is liberal—a perennial reality that past Democratic presidents have ignored at their peril. A party founded by Andrew Jackson on the principle that "the majority is to govern" has long found itself flummoxed by the failure of that majority to see the virtues of the Democrats and the vices of the Republicans...

So are we a centrist country, or a right-of-center one? I think the latter, because the mean to which most Americans revert tends to be more conservative than liberal. According to the NEWSWEEK Poll, nearly twice as many people call themselves conservatives as liberals (40 percent to 20 percent), and Republicans have dominated presidential politics—in many ways the most personal, visceral vote we cast—for 40 years. Since 1968, Democrats have won only three of 10 general elections (1976, 1992 and 1996), and in those years they were led by Southern Baptist nominees who ran away from the liberal label. "Is this a center-right country? Yes, compared to Europe or Canada it's obviously much more conservative," says Adrian Wooldridge, coauthor of "The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America" and Washington bureau chief of the London-based Economist. "There's a much higher tolerance for inequality, much greater cultural conservatism, a higher incarceration rate, legalized handguns and greater distrust of the state."

The terms we use in discussing politics and culture can be elusive and elastic. The conservative label is often applied to people of all sorts and conditions: libertarians, evangelical Christians, tax cutters, military hawks. (There are just as many, if not more, varieties of liberal.) But in broad strokes I mean "conservative" in the way most of us have come to use it in recent decades: to describe those who value custom over change, who worry about the erosion of the familiar and the expansion of the state, and who dislike those who appear condescending about matters of faith, patriotism and culture. (In other words, think of figures ranging from Edmund Burke to Thomas Jefferson to David Brooks to Sarah Palin. It is an eclectic crew.)...

The country may show signs of a receptivity to more-activist government and to a gentler tone on social issues involving religion and sexuality, but when we compare ourselves with, say, Europe—which the left loves to do, especially when assessing our foreign policy—we remain strikingly conservative. In the Pew survey, the number who say they have "old-fashioned values about family and marriage" has declined 8 percentage points since 1994—but from 84 percent to … 76 percent. That is hardly a landslide toward the libertine... "If you compare the Democratic Party to European Labor, in lots of ways [the Democrats] look quite conservative," says Wooldridge. Will a Democratic administration, he asks, "ban handguns? No. Will it throw its weight behind legalizing gay marriage in every state? No. So even if you have, as we will, a Democratic Washington, America will remain a fundamentally conservative country."


Since about 1980, we've been living in a center-right America, but we're center-center now, and likely headed left. Even if McCain pulls an upset, the Democratic Congress would nudge him leftward on issues like alternative energy and taxes (and his health-care plan would be DOA). Should Obama win, he will press hard for his ambitious agenda, even, aides say, at the risk of being a one-term president. Then it would all be about execution.

If Obama moves "smart left" next year, he will have succeeded in rewriting the American social contract—the obligations of the government to the people on the economy, energy, health care and education. But if we see a revival of the dumb left with old-fashioned capitulation to interest groups and a series of rookie mistakes on foreign policy, even a big Democratic victory next month would be a speed bump on the Ronald Reagan highway...

Jon Meacham is right that by the standards of a European-style welfare state, we will always be a relatively conservative country. But closer to home, the norm has not been consistently conservative over the course of the 20th century. If anything, the nation was more often center-left. Democrats controlled the House of Representatives—the "People's House"—for six straight decades between 1930 and 1994 (with only a short exception). While many were Southern conservatives on race, the huge chunks of progressive legislation they swallowed over many years could choke an elephant...

At the presidential level, two Republicans, Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, left almost every major element of the New Deal in place and added their own initiatives that sound right out of the 2008 Democratic Party platform. (Ike's Interstate Highway System was the mother of all infrastructure projects, and Nixon gave us the Environmental Protection Agency.) Every GOP effort to undermine Social Security—the great emblem of domestic liberalism—failed by huge margins between 1936 and 2005. For all his talk, Ronald Reagan failed to reduce the size of government, much less dismantle the welfare state. His acolytes did succeed in the semantic crusade of wrecking the word "liberal," though liberal-bashing is no longer potent politically in any large state except Texas.

The Schlesinger theory of the cycles of history still makes the most sense. Over the past century, we've moved in roughly 30-year cycles, from the Progressive Era to the laissez-faire 1920s to the New Deal to the Reagan years. As it happened, Arthur Schlesinger's timing was a bit off. He dated the last burst of liberalism to the mid-1960s and thus expected a revival in the 1990s. But the conservative era arguably began in 1978 when Rep. William Steiger won approval of a bill that cut the capital-gains tax from 50 percent to 25 percent. We're now exactly 30 years down the road from that...

If he wins, Obama could run aground in a thousand ways next year. He will have to possess all the dexterity he's shown during the campaign, and then some. If he fails to deliver, the country will go back to the center-right. But if he gets a few big things enacted in his first year, Barack Obama would have a fighting chance to move the country to a new place, or at least one we haven't seen for a while. Leftward ho!

BONUS: Former Hillary Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson weighs in at Gotham Acme (his personal blog) and over at the New Republic. His take: " the American people are reacting.  Democrats are poised to make major gains this election — for the second cycle in a row — because Republican policies and politics have been discredited by events... As a result, Americans are looking for their government to do more at home, and to engage cooperatively around the world. Now is not the time to trim the sails out of fear that America is a center right nation.  After decades of conservative ascendance, progressives are on the move."

Thoughts? Disagreements? Amendments? Ad hominem attacks? Weigh in below.

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