MSNBC host Ed Schultze, surveying Tuesday’s election and referendum results, pronounced the United States a “center-left country.” Only an unvarnished partisan could draw that conclusion from the mixed results of an odd/off-year election, but Schultze was undoubtedly pushing back against the more common idea, popular among pundits for many years, that the United States is a center-right country.

I’m not sure when the center-right characterization went out of fashion—maybe with Obama’s election in 2008—but you still hear it occasionally, mainly from the right. For example, a few weeks ago, Republican Rep. Charlie Dent was quoted calling himself a center-right politician in a center-right country. The phrase is often only vaguely defined, but the at least implicit idea is that Americans are a basically conservative people, content with public policies that give private enterprise and unfettered markets a more dominant role in society than they have in other advanced democracies.

The center-right interpretation of American politics reflected a plausible reading of election results. If you start in 1968, when Richard Nixon’s election presumably signaled a shift to the right in the electorate, then Republicans had won 7 out of 10 presidential elections before Obama’s 2008 triumph. Besides, the Carter and Clinton victories in 1976, 1992 and 1996 were less impressive than the Republican blowouts in 1972 and 1980-84-88. But using election results as an indication of right-left leanings is tricky in the United States, where voters are often more swayed by the perceived personal qualities of the candidates than they are by their policy positions. For example, polls showed that the electorates that twice put Ronald Reagan in the White House were actually closer to his opponents’ positions on a majority of issues. (Think, too, of Chris Christie’s landslide victory in blue New Jersey.) Americans actually became steadily more liberal in their policy preferences over the course of the 8-year “Reagan revolution,” but still elected Reagan’s preferred successor, George H. W. Bush.

Another often cited set of evidence for Americans’ center-right orientation are the periodic public opinion polls that ask people whether they consider themselves liberal, conservative or whatever. Conservative self-identification has long beat out liberal by close to 2 to I (roughly, 40% vs. 20%). But most Americans aren’t sophisticated ideologues, and many have only a fuzzy understanding of what the terms “liberal” and “conservative” really mean. For decades, political scientists have known that Americans tend to be “symbolically conservative” while they are “operationally liberal.” That is, they like the label “conservative”; it has a whole range of agreeable connotations—prudent, responsible, cautious, tradition-minded, etc. And, when asked broadly whether they think government does too much or too little, they will say that government does too much. But when asked about specific government policies and programs, it turns out that a plurality of Americans want government to do more–they want progressive taxation, a strong social safety net, vigorous protection of the environment, an active government role in promoting stable economic growth, and a host of other things that only “big government” can provide. In a quintessential test of left-right orientations, respondents to a 2007 poll were asked whether government should work to narrow the income differences between rich and poor. Forty-six percent said yes, 31% no.

So, when it comes to specifics, Americans are operationally liberal, and have been that way pretty consistently ever since public opinion polls started asking them about their policy preferences. They prefer a larger government that takes on more responsibilities, spends more, and taxes more over a smaller government with lower taxes and spending. True, depending on how you choose, slice and dice the data, you can argue plausibly that public opinion has shifted ever so slightly to the right in the last few decades, but operational liberalism still retains a marked advantage over operational conservatism in public opinion.

Schultze is right, then: we are a center-left country. That is, if you ask what the American people want. But if you look at what our political system actually produces, you do have to conclude that we skew right. The effective power structure in Washington and in most state capitals is well to the right of public opinion. Why that is will be the subject of another post.

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