The Political Spectrum

My high school government teacher, Mr. Slater, was a man to be reckoned with.  He is famous among a certain contingent of students who went through his AP class during a certain set of years.  When he was teaching the bloc on political parties, Slater liked to bring out the old political spectrum.  Slater never told us where he stood — better for the speculating — but he did make us think long and hard about idealogy in America.

Thanks to Newsweek, in all of it’s mainstream media glory, the question of idealogy in America is front and center today.  This week’s cover story proclaims, boldy, that American remains a center-right country:

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.

Jonathan Alter, in the same issue, writes a fairly cogent response, arguing that, in fact, America is a left of center country.  But a hearty thanks to Paul Krugman (I suppose he didn’t win that Nobel Prize for nothing) points out the ridiculous reasoning here:

Four years ago George W. Bush narrowly won the presidential election, and Republicans achieved a 30-seat majority in the House and a 10-seat majority in the Senate. Immediately there was a vast chorus from the commentariat, proclaiming the death of liberalism; America, everyone said, was a conservative nation. I have a whole shelf of books with titles like Building Red America and One-Party Nation.

Maybe the current polls are all wrong. But at the moment they point to an Obama victory by a margin much larger than Bush’s in 2004, plus a Democratic majority of 50 or more in the House and something like 14 in the Senate.

So you know what the morning-after commentary will say–in fact, it’s already started. Yes: it will say that America is, um, a conservative nation.

This is exactly what Jonathan Cohn (no intellectual slouch himself) posted from Krugman on the subject, over at The New Republic.  I repeat it here because it’s such an excellent rejoinder to Newsweek’s proposition.  To be sure, liberals shouldn’t take for granted an Obama presidency (they shouldn’t even take for granted an Obama victory, with two weeks till to go!).  This is not least of all because folks from Obama’s past have attested to his steady leadership — I seriously doubt he would allow liberal majorities to go hog wild and quickly alienate great swaths of the country; it’s not in his nature.

The notion that this is a center-right or center-left country is preposterous.  On some issues we lean right, some left, some totally out of the ballpark.  Who is to say?

This just reminds me that conventional wisdom is really, really lame.


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