You often hear pundits and politicians mention in an off-hand manner that America is a center-right, conservative country. Newsweek's Jon Meacham, for example, prophesized in late 2008 that "America remains a center-right nation--a fact that a President Obama would forget at his own peril." Historically this ideological characterization of the U.S. hasn't really been up for debate: until recently, no truly left-wing politician had won a national election in the United States since World War II. We are certainly rightward of most democracies in the world, and, indeed, a consistently larger share of the voting public describes itself as "conservative" than "liberal."
Yet in the wake President Obama's second inaugural address, it may be time to revisit the presumption. I am not among those who found the speech to be particularly daring, at least by the President's own metrics. Conservative media, particularly the more looney tune-ish Hannitys and Limbaughs have spent the last week jumping up and down and pointing at the address as the ultimate unveiling of Obama's formerly concealed, nightmarish soul. (Let's not get carried away: this wasn't a case of Chancellor Palpatine gleefully casting aside his hooded cloak to declare himself the Emperor from Star Wars.)
President Obama, the Phantom Menace?
No, it didn't strike me as a progressive declaration of war, exactly. Nor am I drawing upon the fact that we have now re-elected a Democratic President who does not believe, as Bill Clinton did, that "the era of big government is over" -- though we did, and he doesn't. Rather, it is the public's majority support for those supposedly "lefty" positions articulated in the President's speech that should lead us to re-examine the country's supposed identity. As you go down the list, you'll find that the golden apples of liberalism now occupy the center of American politics: 74 percent of Americans favor regulating green-house gas emissions, 68 percent oppose cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, or any other entitlement, 57 percent support a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, 69 percent continue to support a tax-hike on those making $250,000 a year (most of whom aren't the corporate jet owners Mr. Obama references), and now a majority of Americans support gay marriage. It's not that the President has been freed by his final election to frolic outside the mainstream; on the contrary, nothing in the speech strayed from public agreement.
So what's going on here? One of three things, by my count, has to be true: Either (a) the President is a sorcerer who has cast a spell upon homo sapiens inhabiting the North American land-mass; (b) the aforementioned issues represent a handful of tiny oases of progressivism amidst a desert of arid conservatism; or (c) the famous Silent Majority of Nixon and Reagan, the linchpin of every major political coalition of the last half-century, isn't just silent anymore... it's gone.
Persuasive magician the President is not. Yes, we could conceivably place him on a scale with a duck, but all supernatural powers aside, Mr. Obama simply has not shown himself to be an effective communicator on policy. Whenever the President has tried to move the needle on anything from health care to debt ceilings during his first term, we've gotten partisan inertia. Partially this is due to the fact that Barack Obama tends to be more compelling when he's selling Barack Obama and not individual mandates (disturbing but true); but it also isn't entirely his fault. We've become so de-sensitized to news and information in the 21st century that a Chief Executive summoning the press corps no longer commands the attention and influence it once did -- there are just too many Kardashians, emoji games, and made-up girlfriends of linebackers to distract us.
So, what about Option (b) -- is the opinion data misleading? Political scientists Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril have postulated that Americans are "symbolic conservatives" but "operational liberals." That is to say, we find something attractive about notions of civic autonomy and freedom from the yolk of big government, but when it's time to actually open our Christmas presents, we race down the stairs as fast as anyone to raid the entitlement tree. Just one example: while polls have continued to reflect a slim majority disfavoring the Affordable Care Act, (indeed, it remains virtually the only example in Obama Term I of the President challenging public opinion), most people hold a positive view of the specific goodies contained in the law. In much the same way, a majority of voters support cutting the deficit, yet nobody is terribly eager to cut specific programs in the budget.
But what significance do abstract labels offer, when almost every issue finds conservatives in the minority? Which brings us to our lucky winner, Option (c), the conservative nightmare in which the shift leftward is real. If that is the current reality, the only remaining question is whether the Obama era will be looked back upon as true ideological climate change, or more of a seasonal aberration -- the wintry blip when our traditionally dominant, generally white, suburban, male, upper-income voting bloc went into brief hibernation, only to emerge from its cave with a deafening roar a couple cycles later.
Demographic trends appear to indicate otherwise, as the traditionally leftist constituencies appear to be growing in the near future, as America marches steadily towards becoming a minority white country. Moreover, the retirement of the Baby Boomer generation brings with it the largest armada of militant geezers in America's history -- some accustomed to prosperity and others dependent on government help -- but nearly all of whom will be unwilling to consider conservative reforms to their Social Security and Medicare. In other words, if we haven't already departed "center-right" territory, you can rest assured it's on our itinerary.
Still, it bears noting that one aspect of American democracy remains, and will always remain, exceptionally conservative (with a small c): our political system itself. Built specifically to guard against wild swings in public opinion, the U.S.'s legislative structure makes it difficult to do things -- and thus, fewer things get done. As Ezra Klein has pointed out, seven presidents had sought to pass some version of universal health care before President Obama, and none of them succeeded; almost certainly, in a more European style of parliamentary government, we would have achieved something approximating the ACA decades ago. Perhaps it isn't that Americans are and always have been "center-right" in their beliefs; but simply that our constitutional machinery has made our country so.