Center-Right Nation?

by John Holbo on January 31, 2010

This one comes up from time to time, so let’s consider: “America is a center-right nation.” In some sense, this is probably right. Yglesias, a year ago: “I would go stronger than that, actually, and posit that American politics in the future will mostly be dominated by a center-right political coalition just as it always has. This is just how things work. A political coalition grounded in the social mores of the ethno-sectarian majority and the ideas of the business class has overwhelming intrinsic advantages against contrary movements grounded in the complaints of minority groups and the economic claims of the lower orders.” (But is that too strong? Was the U.S. a center-right nation at the height of the New Deal?)

But there are clear senses in which it is not right that the U.S. is a center-right nation. For example, it’s at least odd to have a center-right nation that lacks a center-right. There aren’t that many Olympia Snowes around – not even Olympia Snowe herself, during this whole health care business. It’s not as though America is the country where, when you elect a guy like Obama, you have to beat the center-right off with a stick, compromise-wise, when the center-left is plainly crying out to meet somewhere in the middle.

I have my own thoughts about this, but I’ll just throw this out. How is it possible, and what does it mean, to have a center-right nation, ideologically and electorally, that lacks a center-right, ideologically and electorally?



ejh 01.31.10 at 9:36 am

Well, one answer would be that it does have a center-right and it’s in the Democratic Party.


rea 01.31.10 at 10:09 am

If you see Olympia Snowe as certer-right, then yeah, America is not a center-right nation.

If you see Obama as center-right, Snowe as right and the rest of the Republican party as . . . bat-shit insane, then the proposition that America is a center-right nation is more defensible.


Henri Vieuxtemps 01.31.10 at 10:27 am

the ideas of the business class? Ha-ha. And these “ideas” are in the second place, after the alleged nativistic tendencies? That’s not the US of A I know.


Hidari 01.31.10 at 10:37 am

You don’t need to know much about American politics (and I don’t know much about American politics ha ha) to see that the American Right is very very very different from the European Right. In the UK Tony Blair was probably slightly to the Right (in terms of foreign policy) of Obama, but probably slightly to the ‘left’ (because of Gordon Brown) economically. So his political position was not a million miles from Obama’s. And yet, in the UK, no one, ever (on the right) called for Blair to be killed, or claimed that he was a ‘socialist’ or ‘communist’ or claimed that the problem with Blair was that he didn’t ‘love’ the UK enough, or claim that if the Tories lost the EU elections then some unspecified ‘disaster’ would face the UK. They aren’t even doing it to the (every so slightly) more ‘left wing’ Brown. The only person who ever toyed with this sort of language was Thatcher, but she was very much an outlier in British politics, as history has shown.

The difference between the American Right and the European Right (at least at the moment) is that the American Right (and the extremist wing, moreover) believe they have a God given (literally) Right (pun intended) to govern. Republican extremists (and it seems that most of them are extremists, from what I can tell) think that Obama’s victory is illegitimate, because they think that all Democrat victories are illegitimate.

Now you can call that attitude what you want, but it ain’t centrist.


Nick Barnes 01.31.10 at 11:07 am

The Democratic Party is centre-right.


John Holbo 01.31.10 at 12:21 pm

Sorry, I think there’s a basic misunderstanding of terms here. The whole ‘America is a center-right nation’ is not supposed to express the idea that America is to the right of, say, Europe. That’s obvious. The idea is that, within the American spectrum – within left and right, qua American politics – the right has a slight dominance. I don’t really think that’s correct right, per the post. But it certainly isn’t wrong for the reasons commenters 1,2, 4 and 5 propose.


Matt Heath 01.31.10 at 12:47 pm

Hidari: I’m pretty sure some Tories did say that behind the shiny, centrist, New-Labour mask Blair was still a socialist.


bob mcmanus 01.31.10 at 12:59 pm

“qua American politics – the right has a slight dominance.”

1) The Right “purifies” its ranks of its leftmost members. I went looking for the most recent example, the acceptance of the platform vs the checklist of ten items for Republican party internal support but couldn’t find it. But in the discourse, and largely in practice the Republican is an intransigent ideologically coherent bargainer. This not only limits Snowe’s options, but also the options of Democrats who need Republican support, like Nelson.

2) When the other party (Democrats) has inclusion and “public reason”among its core values and grounds for legitimacy it not only must allow Republicans at the table, but listen to them and adjust their own programs and policies in that direction. See Stupak/Nelson. The Democratic goal is to achieve enough of a consensus that a policy can be implemented. Thus they will always be moved to the right, until a left wing of the Democratic Party starts to exercise a veto point, refuses to compromise, and is willing to walk away and let policy and politics fail.

3) This should be old news. How does a vanguard or minority take over a political party or country? God knows it has happened enough in history. How did the Sunnis rule Iraq?

It may not be the case that the vanguard creates a majoritarian consensus and then takes power. (This is the liberal/Democratic/Gramscian(?) view of how politics is done.) In many cases the vanguard gets a certain amount of power and then creates the ideological consensus thru propaganda and claims its views were the majoritarian opinion all along, rewriting history.

Is this, tho perhaps, very wrong, closer to what you wanted?


hix 01.31.10 at 1:02 pm

Those two American parties are far to much of empty shells, able to adapt fast to shifting majorities with different alliance structures to ever produce some structural right/left majority within the US system. The other side is that the US political system per se looks not only to the right of other developed countries but also to the right of the American population , due to low voter turnout with upper class bias, and sucesfull prophaganda.


bob mcmanus 01.31.10 at 1:15 pm

IOW, I think it is more about tactics than about ideology.

Stupak and the forced birthers were willing and able to let healthcare die.

The choice caucus were willing to vote for the Stupak amendment, and would have been condemned had they exercised a veto point. The public option Democrats were and are being condemned.

Who is going to win, and which direction will the Overton Window move?


Billikin 01.31.10 at 1:21 pm

“How is it possible, and what does it mean, to have a center-right nation, ideologically and electorally, that lacks a center-right, ideologically and electorally?”

Can you spell BIPOLAR, boys and girls? ;) BIMODAL?

Besides, what does center-right mean? Nixon would probably be center-left by today’s standards, but nobody thought so then. The DW-NOMINATE folks can rank congressmen on a Left-Right dimension over the whole of U. S. history, but that does not mean that its meaning stayed the same the whole time.


John 01.31.10 at 1:22 pm

If America is center right, then it must mean that America is right ideologically, but perhaps not that “extreme” as the far right. For all the invocations of Burke or Tocqueville or Oakschott, American conservatism is somewhat distinctive owing to the vicissitudes of history; the regional, ethnic, and religious diversity of the US; and the specific constitutional (partly national/partly federal) form of (limited and representative) government (of separation of powers and checks and balances). Perhaps modern and “liberal” principles like equality, liberty, rights, and consent of the governed place conservatism in America in a peculiar position which makes it somewhat confused.

So American conservatism appears to divided within and against itself in terms of libertarianism, traditionalism, populism, constitutionalism, Christianism, “founderism,” localism, isolationism, militarism, imperialism, and many other variants.

Centrism is a muddled term that attempts to account for this ideological syncretism. Or perhaps centrism simply means a pragmatic willingness to compromise on abstract ideological principles in order to achieve desired outcomes through actual political action.

If it’s center-right as ideological syncretism then it’s confused in a way that makes political action difficult. It allows specific ideological minority sects to thwart a more generalized policy (this happens on the left too). If it is centrism as pragmatism, then it loses all appeal as the horse trading of the aggregation of interests becomes its only result.


bert 01.31.10 at 2:58 pm

Lots of commenters taking the Naderish line about the American eagle having two right wings. To that end, a British comparison. Most people would describe David Cameron as centre-right. He:

> supports a stimulus on Keynesian grounds, but is keen in the short-to-medium term to cut deficits so as to preserve credibility with bond markets
> strongly supports universal healthcare, with a big role for government
> takes climate change seriously, supporting the use of market mechanisms to put a price on carbon emissions

That’s Obama’s State of the Union right there, with two qualifications.
First, Obama emphasised jobs, and the role of government in creating them, either through direct subsidy or through tax breaks. By contrast, a consistent Tory theme in recent years has been the wasteful expansion of public sector and quango jobs. Tory pols comb the back of the Guardian for ludicrous-sounding job ads, and play them for laughs to party audiences.
Second, within a general context of artful ambiguity, there’s a particularly high degree of uncertainty about Tory foreign policy. But Cameron’s various gambits on Europe suggest a willingness to indulge the nationalist headbangers, and his stance on the Russia-Georgia war took its cue from the McCain campaign. Obama seems temperamentally to be a more natural multilateralist – a stance that comes across in his dealings domestically, too.


ehj2 01.31.10 at 3:01 pm

America is a warrior state wedded to corporatism and guided by a Myth of Exceptionalism (an updated Divine Right of Kings). If you disagree, you hate freedom.

Corporatism is the social engineering experiment of our time.

If you recognize the Right as representing ever lower taxes and deregulation (the only bedrock in the otherwise polymorphous agenda), then American citizens are heavily tilted to the Right, even though lower taxes and deregulation, by way of eliminating social capital, don’t help people, or even small corporations, but only vast corporations.

A party to the Left of Corporatism would be Humanism/Labor, which doesn’t exist in America and would be defined as un-American. Even in academia, the decidedly pro-Corporatist country has decided Humanists and Historians are a waste of money (and a threat to the project of continually rewriting America’s past) and their respective Departments are quickly vanishing.

We tend to think America is not fascist, because it is not a police state internally, ignoring that it incarcerates close to 1% of its population and has crafted a Myth that renders heavy-handed self-policing unnecessary. Closer to fact, it justifies its vast military as necessary to police the world on behalf of the safety, not of people, but corporatism.

Does America tilt Right? Do bears shit in the woods?


M 01.31.10 at 3:39 pm

Sorry, I think there’s a basic misunderstanding of terms here. The whole ‘America is a center-right nation’ is not supposed to express the idea that America is to the right of, say, Europe. That’s obvious. The idea is that, within the American spectrum – within left and right, qua American politics – the right has a slight dominance.

I think you need to clarify your definition of “left” and “right” here. To me it seems obvious that if you define terms relative to each political situation (such that in 2010 America Obama is center-left and McCain is center-right, and in 1920s Russia Trotsky is center-left and Bukharin is center-right) then every nation is necessarily centrist, no?

Maybe you mean that the right has greater command over policy than the American people’s actual policy preferences would justify (which is a common enough belief among American progressives.) But every poll suggests that Americans have no coherent policy preferences.


b9n10t 01.31.10 at 3:45 pm

I think the answer to JH’s question might have something to do with the uniquely contested nature of corporate dominance.

Perhaps European publics and their pre-capitalist history have effectively newtered the political aspirations of its capitalists. In the US, the oligarchs have yet to be able to discern exactly how far they can take their dominance. Thus they continue to lean against public welfare schemes and push right (in both parties) as a tactic.


hix 01.31.10 at 3:46 pm

Bert based on those left right conflict lines, Germany is probably the most right radical country in the world. Doesnt sound realistic to me. Those are minor side issues.

What about welfare levels, health insurance, social insurance, progressive taxation, tutotion fees and the judical system? The UK is still to the left of the US on those issues.


David Moles 01.31.10 at 3:53 pm

Yglesias’ argument is almost tautological, isn’t it? If what he says is true, shouldn’t all nations be center-right — or, more accurately, shouldn’t all nations be conservative, in some vaguely Churchillian early-2oth-century sort of way?

On the other hand we have a political system where power at the national level (viz. the Senate and the Electoral College) is skewed in favor of rural areas thinly populated by scared more or less radicalized white people. But just because the median electoral unit is somewhere to the right of center, that doesn’t mean the country is in any meaningful sense center-right — it doesn’t mean there’s any large population of voters near that median. (Except in Orange County.)


P O'Neill 01.31.10 at 4:09 pm

With all the risks that come with quoting Frank Rich quoting Alan Brinkley, it’s nonetheless useful to consider

The historian Alan Brinkley has observed that we will soon enter the fourth decade in which Congress — and therefore government as a whole — has failed to deal with any major national problem, from infrastructure to education.

So maybe it’s center right out of default — there’s a blocking veto on anything more pronounced left or right, except politically cheap tax cuts, so the system has inertia plus a fiscal creep (from the unfinanced tax cuts) to limit the size of government.


b9n10t 01.31.10 at 4:28 pm

David Moles:

“Yglesias’ argument is almost tautological, isn’t it?”

Yes, purposely so. He was criticizing one possible interpretation of the “center-right nation” claim as being meaningless.


John Holbo 01.31.10 at 4:32 pm

“To me it seems obvious that if you define terms relative to each political situation (such that in 2010 America Obama is center-left and McCain is center-right, and in 1920s Russia Trotsky is center-left and Bukharin is center-right) then every nation is necessarily centrist, no?”

It seems likely that many nations will tend to be ‘centrist’ with regard to themselves, as it were. But this is hardly a tautology (although of course you could make it one). It is perfectly possible for an extreme right-wing (or left-wing) group to seize and hold power stably for a period of time. There will naturally be a tendency of the political compass to accommodate itself to such developments, but not to the extent of any extreme becoming the new middle, by definition. Ditto for center-right or center-left, surely. Imagine an opinion/ideology bell curve. Now imagine that there is a power/influence bell curve, and that it is shifted right (or left) relative to the opinion curve. (I’m not actually suggesting that it has to be a bell curve, obviously.)

I agree that my use of terms in the post is not self-evidently clear, and might, upon examination, be confused; but it isn’t just self-evidently a useless tautology that the middle is always the middle. Or something.

It is worth noting that those who claim that America is a center-right nation do not seem to have a model according to which, in effect, the left is just disenfranchised. That is, there’s a middle – which is the average or mean of opinion (whatever) – and it is to the left of who’s got power. Ergo, the country is center-right. The fact that the U.S. is center-right is supposed to be a healthy expression of consensus/average opinion/the General Will. It’s a little unclear how, if this is how it goes, we could fail to be ‘in the middle’ with respect to ourselves. In which case we wouldn’t be center-right, after all, but plain out center-center. But this isn’t a problem for me.


Matthew Yglesias 01.31.10 at 4:50 pm

He was criticizing one possible interpretation of the “center-right nation” claim as being meaningless.

Exactly so. What’s more, it’s empirically the case that center-right political coalitions are usually dominant in most democratic countries. You can think of a few exceptions (Sweden, post-Pinochet Chile) but in most countries the main conservative parties usually hold power. The world is a small-c conservative place and the defenders of entrenched power tend to have power.


Henri Vieuxtemps 01.31.10 at 5:10 pm

Those who have power tend to have power. And they are on the right. Except in places like Cuba.


ehj2 01.31.10 at 5:27 pm

With the exceptions of Alexander and current day America, no country in history has executed Global War. How Rogue (even if potentially virtuous) do we have to be to be labelled Right? Do we now believe in beneficent princes?

Congress is K-Street, the Regulatory Agencies are captured, the executive President reserves the right to declare anyone in the world an illegal combatant and have them assassinated via flying robots or captured and tortured. We ignore international treaties and borrow $1Trillion/year from China and Japan to maintain a military infrastructure that covers the oceans and maintains a footprint in almost every other nation. The fact that we borrow the money is salient … Republican deficits don’t matter “because they defend America” … Democratic deficits are anathema because they are “socialist and betray our self reliance.”

In the marketplace of ideas, and with significant misdirection, Corporatism has won. The repeal of Glass-Steagall and the implementation of NAFTA in the last decades were not simply national statements of corporate power that didn’t solve national problems (agree with comment 18), but international declarations of the rights demanded by corporations and implemented by our Congress. Low taxes and Deregulation are the freedoms that benefit international corporations, not nation states or the citizens that comprise them.

We are now past a tipping point. America (ironically a wealthy country) is purposively in debt so it can’t afford social capital (which includes infrastructure), and the population is so close to poverty it really can’t vote for increased taxes to correct the imbalances (people are persuaded they have to vote Republican to eat).


Rich Puchalsky 01.31.10 at 6:02 pm

The U.S. is a declining empire. Therefore, there isn’t really any coherent political position that you can point to as being the majority one, or the controlling one. There are only various gestures and buzzwords that are taken advantage of by one or another powerful interest. Any sort of major political change is locked in stasis until real-world constraints from outside force a crisis in the system, probably in favor of some right-wing demagogue.


bert 01.31.10 at 6:06 pm

The precise expression of right and left will vary nation by nation.
That’s John’s point (and, I guess, yours too, Hix).
To sink us even deeper into relativism, how’s this: how useful are ‘right’ and ‘left’ as explanatory concepts when viewed across these kind of boundaries?
The right in Britain was opposed to the european Constitution, on the grounds that it represented a power grab by unrepresentative international politicians and bureaucrats, violating norms established nationally and in the private sector.
The French voted against the Constitution, on the grounds that it delivered power to an international elite of finance and capital, at the expense of the protecting nation state – a line that was as likely to be taken by a hardcore Gaullist as by a Left Bank lefty.
It seems to me you’d have an easier time explaining that little puzzle if you divide by public/private or centralised/devolved, rather than right and left.
(In an effort to remain on topic, here’s the first American example I can think of that might illustrate the point: Given that it defended labour-intensive agriculture against expansionist Yankee capitalism, exactly how right-wing was the Confederacy?)

Yglesias’ general point that the rich and powerful have an inbuilt advantage in using and retaining power has to be accompanied by lots of finegrained specifics about the degree to which this is disproportionately the case in the US, and about the extent to which the balance may have changed over time. Broad distinctions between left and right are part of such a discussion, but posssibly not the most interesting part.


The Raven 01.31.10 at 7:36 pm

“How is it possible, and what does it mean, to have a center-right nation, ideologically and electorally, that lacks a center-right, ideologically and electorally?”

The how is that the country’s electoral and legislature system shuts out much of the popular left. In particular, the Senate is dominated by the right, because of its customs, the expense of running a Senate campaign, and because more conservative rural voters have much greater representation there. The meaning is that the USA is not very democratic–the national legislature does not express the will of the people by any reasonable measurement.

This begs the question of how the USA might become more democratic.


mds 01.31.10 at 7:59 pm

This begs the question of how the USA might become more democratic.

Skipping quickly over this use of “begs the question,” one approach might be to drop the cut-off for representation in the US House to much closer to the population of Wyoming. Fixing the total number of representatives at 435, while guaranteeing states like North Dakota one seat, just turns the House into another version of the Senate. Now, the Senate is the worse obstrution point in Washington, but more representatives from urban America would tilt the lower house in a more center-left direction, so that the inevitable “compromise” position might not automatically be a right-wing one. And as an added bonus, all it would take is repealing the Reapportionment Act, rather than amending the Constitution. It would be interesting to watch the cloture debate on how un-American it is to have the average member of Congress represent a lot fewer than 700,000 people.


bianca steele 01.31.10 at 8:20 pm

Slowly working through comments: I think one meaning, among others, of “America is a center-right nation” is that popular positions that in Europe and elsewhere would register as liberal or as on the left, in America by virtue of being broadly held can often register as being on the right–the opposite of what John Holbo says @6. I can see Yglesias’s point if he wants to say that because the broad population in the US is more rightist than in Europe, cultural (say) positions that in Europe register as left, in the US can register as right–but I don’t think it’s tenable overall.


bianca steele 01.31.10 at 8:32 pm

do not seem to have a model according to which, in effect, the left is just disenfranchised.

I seem to remember, somewhere or other, reading someone or other who implied that the function of the political left as it exists in the US is to challenge the status quo. The right is thus, truly, “conservative,” in that it resists change. This seems compatible with a wholly nonpartisan system in which every idea and institution, naturally, is open to criticism–you just can’t expect the status quo party to criticize the status quo. So the left challenges the status quo by giving good reasons, and either (1) the right adopts its policies little by little, or (2) the left occasionally gets power and institutes needed policy changes while in power.

Can’t remember who I was reading this from, unfortunately.

But this would be more or less to deny the existence of a left (or anything outside the establishment ideology). At best, the “democratic left” gets to lobby the “political left” to get its issues included. To call this the disenfranchisement of the left doesn’t seem so far off to me.

This is not, I think, exactly the same as saying that most people are conservative and also centrist, making them “center-right.”


Ben Alpers 01.31.10 at 8:52 pm

It seems to me obviously fallacious to draw conclusions about the ideology of the American nation on the basis of the political alignment of our federal government given that:

1) A major component of that government–the U.S. Senate–is deeply undemocratic in its structure and rules…and even the House (because of the relatively small number of seats and the presence of some very small states) and the Presidency (because of the electoral college) are not particularly designed as mirrors of public opinion. And of course first-past-the-post adds to this problem.

2) Both major political parties are unpopular with a large segment of the population. And this is especially true of Republicans and Democrats in the House and the Senate.

This is not to say that the populace is necessarily to the left of our federal government, but rather that it is more often than not out-of-step with it, often in a populist direction (which of course might be either left or right).

One way or another, I don’t think one can divine the ideology of the nation by looking at the ideology of Beltway insiders (much as Beltway insiders would like to think that one can).


Henri Vieuxtemps 01.31.10 at 9:14 pm

Multi-party system with proportional representation would be a good start.


hix 01.31.10 at 9:25 pm

I simply cant read . So the comment at 17 does not make much sense.

What i was jumping at was the divide on keynsian spending where Germany all parties expect the Linke with arround 20% are to the right off the UK and US spectrum. For the other two issues, healthcareand climate change, Germany is clearly to the left of the US just like the rest of the entire EU. So the Germany would be far right based on those criteria comment makes no sense.


Leinad 01.31.10 at 9:42 pm

As well, the United States never developed a labourist/social democratic party, so their political dialogue retained the Liberal/Conservative dynamic, where social democratic policies had to sneak their way into the Liberal party/faction of the day’s program.


Hattip 01.31.10 at 10:07 pm

Well you socialist are going to discover just how right of center this nation is come Nov.



Alex 01.31.10 at 11:53 pm

I have nothing much to add on the specific point, but Stephen Fry delivered a lecture on America, which in part addressed its contradictions:

It’s quite good.


Alex 02.01.10 at 12:19 am

[David Cameron] supports a stimulus on Keynesian grounds, but is keen in the short-to-medium term to cut deficits so as to preserve credibility with bond markets”

This is false. See for instance:

“The leader of the opposition condemned the Government for separating its response to the recession and debt – by addressing the first and ignoring the second. By stimulating the economy by borrowing money, the government ‘may even make the recession longer and deeper,’ he said.”

9th December 2008


Ted 02.01.10 at 4:37 am

Often times, folks can benefit from the wisdom of those who behold from afar. In Grade 6 Geography, we were taught that the American governance system was purposely designed to protect Americans from a central government. It seems as though the history of the US over the last four decades confirms that teaching.


Matt McIrvin 02.01.10 at 4:42 am

One thing this might mean is a notion that the population as a whole are to the right of the cultural and media elite who define the center of polite discourse.

Now, in purely partisan terms, this simply isn’t true. And if you poll Americans about, say, economic policy preferences, depending on how you word the questions, you can put them all over the map and show striking support for some progressive proposals.

But there are a couple of ways in which it is true. The American population as a whole are, I believe, somewhat more racist and more religious than the cultural elite, both of which tendencies tend to be identified with the right. Notably, these tendencies are also both declining with time, though religiosity will be pretty high for a long time to come.

I think a lot of older media types are also still stuck in the wonderment of the Reagan era, when the fervor and popularity of the new conservative movement took them by surprise. None of them want to look like that kind of chump again, and they all correct in the direction of assuming the people are ultra-conservative.


Ted 02.01.10 at 5:16 am


Perhaps it is more that the great rump of Americans live cheek by jowl with all races and religions at street level, rather than from from behind college lecterns. Your point about Reaganism is well made. If you read, for example, Paul Krugman’s blog, it is clear he is still traumatized by that era. ;)


Turgut 02.01.10 at 5:59 am

The American population as a whole are, I believe, somewhat more racist and more religious than the cultural elite…

The influence of Christian evangelicalism in US politics here cannot be overemphasized. As far as I know, even the most pious of European nations have no political determinant comparable to the American Christian right (maybe Turkey?). From foreign policy in West Asia (defending Israel can only hasten the day of the Lord’s return!), to reproductive rights (Planned Parenthood is the sponsor of state genocide!), to the health care debate (universal health care=Marx=atheism!), this demographic not only plays into beliefs of national exceptionalism (America is the city on hill, the refuge of those facing 17thC religious persecution, the godsend vanquisher of Nazis/Commies, blah blah), it also dangerously transcends party lines when it comes to the DNC-GOP split. Candidates from both parties bend over backwards trying to establish their commitment to “traditional family values”, devotion to the so-called “Judeo-Christian backbone” of the US, unquestioning support of the “anointed” Kadma/Likud front in Israel, etc.

While there are some exceptions in Congress, Southern Dems and Blue Dogs refuse to disappoint their evangelical constituencies, and even radical pinko fascists like Obama refuse to spend valuable “political capital” on the human rights issue wrt same-sex marriage and are required to appease loons like Rick Warren before they can assume the role of POTUS.


Ted 02.01.10 at 6:01 am


Given we are making comparisons with Europe, you might want to reflect on the fact the UK has a state established religion, while the dominant ruling party in post-war Germany has been the Xian-Democrats. This does make the US separation of church and state look a bit silly.


Turgut 02.01.10 at 6:22 am

Sorry Ted, I was under the impression that, per John’s instructions, we were specifically not making comparisons with Europe, but rather discussing why the US falls to the center-right of its own political spectrum- one that is obviously to the right of “Europe” (whatever you mean by “Europe”). If so, my only thought was that the evangelical right has such a base in the US that both the GOP and the Dems find it necessary to appease this constituency above all else, and as a result the overall political climate is skewed towards their perspective.

Also, I’m not from the UK, but I would be extremely surprised (yes, I know the BNP has made some ugly headway as of late) if the average Anglican was at all similar in his or her political outlook to the average American Pentecostal or Southern Baptist.


Turgut 02.01.10 at 6:46 am

I mentioned the BNP because I assumed it was the most extreme right-wing UK political party imaginable, but after doing a bit more reading it seems that the “state established” religion of the UK wants nothing to do with the BNP. Compare this with the participants of the US non-state established religion, though tax-exempt, which, judging from the comments of the Robertson’s, Falwell’s, Warren’s, and the like, would do nothing to distance themselves from the sort of rhetoric the BNP is proud to peddle. It seems difficult to seriously equate the UK’s Anglicanism with American evangelicalism when it comes to the political consequences.


bert 02.01.10 at 9:51 am

Alex @ 37

You’re right that with Cameron there’s a fair bit of deficit hawkishness in the rhetoric.
But whoever Cameron’s channeling, it’s not Andrew Mellon.
He never mounted an intellectual attack on reflationary stimulus spending. Instead, he’s concentrated on the perils of deficit finance. And when he was attacked by Labour, he responded by softening his line still further.

A year ago: “Fiscal expansion is great if you can afford it, counter-productive if you can’t.”
This week: “The case for starting early to establish credibility is overwhelming. Early action doesn’t have to be particularly extensive, but it’s got to be early.”

So, Obama has conceded the importance of fiscal responsibility, and budgeted some retrenchment starting next year. Cameron has conceded the fragility of current growth, and emphasised that immediate cuts will be modest. Hardly a chasm.
There’s a lot of Tories who look at Cameron and see Ted Heath, and here’s more evidence for them. The Selsdon stuff doesn’t survive the first contact with the enemy.


Ted 02.01.10 at 9:56 am


Here’s a hint. The US was founded by those fleeing England’s established state religion.


bert 02.01.10 at 10:38 am

The US was founded by those fleeing England’s established state religion uncompromising religious enthusiasts.


Billikin 02.01.10 at 10:53 am

I just spent some time at this site ( ) looking at the changes in the U. S. House and Senate over time. (See the movies at the bottom of the page.) Whatever they mean by liberal and conservative, the Jeffersonian/Jacksonian/Democratic parties have been liberal and the Federalist/Whig/Republican parties have been conservative. A couple of things I found of interest: Southern Jeffersonians were at the extreme liberal end of the spectrum, but the South moved to the right over time, so that by 1950 Southern Democrats occupied the center, but were anti-civil rights. Now the South is largely Republican. Minor parties that won Congressional seats have tended to be centrist, including the Populists and Progressives. The U. S. may have been shifting to the right since the 1970s, but only began to become polarized in the 1990s. The center in Congress was thin by the end of the decade, and, with continued polarization in the next decade, has virtually disappeared. The average Congressman may be center-right, but you will be hard pressed to find a center-right Congressman. Maybe a Southern Democrat. By contrast, in 1930 the parties overlapped and there were lots of centrist Congressmen. Liberal/Conservative polarization was greater in the 1880s than now. You have to go back a ways to find that. That polarization lasted for quite some time, which does not bode well for bipartisanship.


bianca steele 02.01.10 at 1:53 pm

@46, @47: Only the North. The South was founded by plantation owners who turned themselves into English aristocrats by hard work, government land grants, and forced labor.


bert 02.01.10 at 3:02 pm

Forgive me, Bianca. I was responding to Ted in kind.
You’re right, of course.
The last time we exchanged comments, there was talk at one point about Ulster Orangemen, if I remember rightly. Southern-fried Christianity might be another thing we can lay at the door of the Scots-Irish.


Turgut 02.01.10 at 3:19 pm

The US was founded by those fleeing England’s established state religion.

Do tell! But how does that explain the more modern phenomenon I was describing? Unless of course you mean to suggest that Bible Belt is politically or culturally similar to the Puritans (which would explain why the evangelical right so often agitates, like the Puritans of Boston did, to jail persons that fell into the sin of avarice by daring to “sell as dear as they can, and buy as cheap as they can”). And I still don’t see why England’s spooky “established state religion” keeps coming up- it’s not as if they are on the gov’t dole these days nor exert any real political power, and the Star Chamber has been out of commission for some time now. Certainly the Church of England is no more state-sponsored than those churches in the US that don’t pay taxes.


Turgut 02.01.10 at 3:25 pm

Was America to the center-right during the Bush II years, or was it just right-right?


phoebesmother 02.01.10 at 4:23 pm

Americans such as myself are struck by how very generalized a picture Europeans have of United States history. 13 colonies, 13 religious and cultural histories, 13 geographies, 13 politics. I’m not sure how appropriate the modern concepts of Right and Left are before the Civil War and the expansion of corporate capitalism. American national history is distorted by slavery and its disparate impact on the states and by the differences in the cultures of the Native American populations that each area confronted. Other distortions arose from the states-based rules for male suffrage and the differential impacts of immigrations on areas of the country.
@26: the South, rather, the Southern elites were not defending “labor-intensive agriculture against expansionist Yankee capitalism”; they were defending slave-based cash crop agriculture in which slaves were arguably more “capital” than “labor” (but I’m no economist). This part of the agricultural sector represented about a quarter of the population, probably roughly the proportion of “Yankee capitalists.” The geographic feature of the Appalachian mountain chain cleaved this intensive cash cropping region from the rest of each Southern state.
@49: Government land grants affected South Carolina’s rice growing regions but not so much other states. I’m not sure I’d say Southern plantation owners turned themselves into “English aristocrats”; they were more like colonial planter elites in Africa and Asia and just as invested in global markets (including the North).


bert 02.01.10 at 5:19 pm

I think Bianca’s American.
I’ll readily confess to being merely an interested outsider, though.
My comments about the Confederacy were intended to make exactly your point about the usefulness of ‘left’ and ‘right’. A Southern secessionist would typically be seen as right wing. So would a rapacious Northern industrialist. You need something else – perhaps a marxist analysis about successive phases of capitalism – to understand their conflict. I’m sure there’s a better example out there that would make the same point, but the Civil War was the one I came up with.


bert 02.01.10 at 5:28 pm

By the way, the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ date back to 1789 or so.
It’d be a mistake to limit them to post-industrial politics.


Fatty2cent 02.01.10 at 5:45 pm

The people who say that we are a center-right nation are just perpetuating a myth that is force fed by elites. Politicians cite this little ditty all the time and use it as an excuse to oppose or promote a certain idea, or take a position, based on appealing to some imagined center-right ideal. It then becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. Our nation’s policies end up being center-right, yet no real person ends up being happy about the outcome. Then our politicians stand up on the hill circle-jerking each other as if they did something wonderful for our nifty center-right nation, and everyone else wishes that they took a distinctive left or distinctive right position. Saying we are center-right and legislating as if we are center-right only benefits the people who profit from center-right policies, so ask yourself “cui bono?”, who benefits from the center-right myth… because it is not the average citizen.


bianca steele 02.01.10 at 6:43 pm

Don’t be silly. The Southern planters knew themselves as Cavaliers, traditionalist Anglicans. Seriously, I think the Scots-Irish were smaller scale, salt of the earth types, and IIRC they could only afford to buy slaves after they’d built up some cash the hard way. I doubt they had much influence on the culture of the larger planters.

Re your @26, the Southern slaveowners defended their relationship with labor as based on personal, almost familial relationships; opposing their way of life to the contract based system common in the North, arguing that “wage slavery” is wrong but actual slavery is not. Sounds pretty conservative to me but it’s easy to see how it could be attractive to the left.

This aspect of Southern conservatism persisted after the Second World War and is still influential and is still universally recognized as a conservative, traditional, even reactionary philosophy, but again was also attractive to the left even when not presenting itself as simply the only tradition available.

The slave economy was at least as expansionist as the northern factory system: arguably more so, as most of what both north and south exported was small farmers, not industry. The slaveowners saw it as a personal affront that they could not cross state lines for travel or to purchase property without giving up some of their putative rights, and used federalism to compel northern states opposed to slavery to defend their putative property rights nationwide. In this sense they were absolutely expansionist.

But I see phoebesmother says otherwise and she probably has better research available to her than I do.

Anyway, as far as both central and local government go, I’d guess a big part of the difference is that the north has a civic republican tradition that the south largely lacks, and this maps poorly to right/left by anyone’s definitions.


bianca steele 02.01.10 at 6:43 pm

Back on topic:
The huge story over the past fifty-sixty years has been the denial of the label “conservative” to large numbers of people who justly had considered themselves conservative and center-right, so it’s not surprising that when someone says “America is a center-right nation,” no one really knows what it means.


bert 02.01.10 at 7:00 pm

Oh dear, still bristling? I don’t think I’m being remotely silly. At issue was where the religious right comes from. The roots of southern baptist evangelism are far more scots-irish presbyterianism than patrician anglicanism. There’s more to the religious right than just that, of course (Catholic and Mormon input has been particularly important in recent times). But it was at the heart of the Bush variant.


S. Turner 02.01.10 at 9:08 pm

Doesn’t ‘centre right’ mean right of centre ? If centre is half way between left and right (perfectly balancing the common good and individual rights), doesn’t this mean a ‘centre right’ nation will be one which tends to enact and whose citizens tend to comply with policies that moderately favour the rights of individuals (right) even when doing so moderately damages the common good (left)? Thus, ever so moderately disturbing the perfect balance noted above?


Henri Vieuxtemps 02.01.10 at 10:20 pm

@60, it all depends on how you define “common good” and “individual rights”.


Ted 02.02.10 at 2:30 am


Even worse has been the denial of the word “liberal” to the true liberals, while lavishing it on soc1al1sts and campus speech commissars


bianca steele 02.02.10 at 2:55 am

Oh no, I feel sorry for them only as I’d feel sorry for anyone. They are losing their party and they don’t all seem to know it yet.

The problem for the rest of us is so long as they can convince people the following makes sense: “America is a center-right country, therefore the far-right must always be in power, and must always get its way even when it’s not in power.”


socialrepublican 02.03.10 at 11:39 pm


One of those just shat in your bed….alas you were too busy eying up the Social Liberals


AlanDownunder 02.05.10 at 3:39 am

A nation that persists in being centre right over time will inevitably become batshit crazy right.
Case in point: USA.

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