Is America a Center-Right Nation?

John McCain faces a serious challenge in this election year -- a struggling economy, a war the public is eager to see ended, a deeply unpopular president, and perhaps most importantly, the natural swing of the pendulum after eight years of Republican rule (only once since the 1940s has a party won three consecutive presidential elections). Nonetheless, conservatives continue to assure themselves that in the end, they reside where the country sits ideologically.

McCain, avers George Will, is "a center-right candidate seeking to lead a center-right country." Tom Cole, the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, agrees: "I believe that it is still a center-right country, and I think this election will show that," he told the New York Times Magazine. "America is a center-right country and in modern times has not elected a thoroughgoing liberal as president," pleaded former Bush adviser Peter Wehner last week in the Wall Street Journal.

You can hear the hint of desperation in their voices. What they probably suspect, and what progressives are hoping, is that the conservative era that arrived with Ronald Reagan in 1980 is finally reaching its end, dragged into its grave by George W. Bush. The moment for a resurgence of activist government may have finally arrived.

But in order to make it happen, Democrats will have to overcome a deep skepticism among the public, not about the relative abilities of the opposition party but about government itself. As the most recent Gallup poll on the subject shows, the public's faith in government is as low as it has been at any point since they started asking the question thirty-five years ago.

Given the combination of dishonesty, corruption and incompetence that has marked the current administration, it's hard to blame the American people for their distrust. Republicans argue that government can't do anything right, then set about to prove it once they grab government's reins. Each successive Republican administration only provides more evidence for their contention that government is a bumbling beast incapable of solving problems. Few notice that they never deliver on their promises to reduce its size and scope; as a portion of GDP, the postwar federal government was at its biggest during the years of that famed enemy of big government, Ronald Reagan.

And what we hear from the soon-to-be Republican nominee sounds little different from the standard GOP litany: cut spending, cut taxes on the wealthy, have faith in the magic of the market. In other words, you're on your own. As Jacob Hacker put it in a 2005 New Republic article (not currently available on the web), "Call it the vicious cycle of insecurity -- if Americans feel no one can help them, they will back leaders who won't. In the '30s, Democrats saw economic security as the keystone of a broad coalition in support of their party. Today, Republicans appear to see insecurity in the same way." This has certainly been the strategy behind their doomsday predictions on Social Security: convince the public that the system is going bankrupt, and people will be much more open to dismantling it, because what does it matter?

But the faith that McCain and other conservatives have that the country is with them rests on a fundamental misperception about public opinion. Since Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril's 1964 book The Political Beliefs of Americans, political scientists have known that as a group Americans are "symbolic conservatives" but "operational liberals." In other words, if you ask them whether they'd define themselves as conservative or liberal, most choose conservative; but if you ask them about what they want government to do about specific issues and problems, most choose the liberal solution, i.e. that government should do more and spend more.

As a consequence, a substantial portion of the population -- nearly a quarter, according to the General Social Survey -- are what political scientist James Stimson calls "conflicted conservatives," those who pick "conservative" when asked their ideological identification, but nonetheless support liberal policies. As Stimson wrote:

The conflicted conservatives are the interesting group. Large enough to swing all elections one way or the other, their votes are potentially available to both parties. They want liberal policies and respond to specific Democratic appeals to do more and spend more on various domestic priorities. They think of themselves as conservatives and respond to Republican identification with conservatism. Which is the stronger appeal, liberal policies or conservative symbols, is a close call and so varies with the times. Where demand for liberal policies is at a low ebb as in 1980, symbols prevail and Republicans win. When that demand is strong, think 1960 or 1992, then the policies carry the day and Democrats win.

Whether such voters are "conservative" in any meaningful sense, there is little doubt which kind of moment we're in now. As the Pew Research Center reported last fall, the gap between the number of people calling themselves Democrats and those calling themselves Republicans is larger than it has been in twenty years. The severity of problems like the current economic troubles and the disaster that is the American health care system make the conservative reluctance to do much of anything look both clueless and heartless, like Bush twiddling while New Orleans drowned. And let's recall that when Bush finally tried to deliver on the long-held conservative desire to begin the dismantling of Social Security, the public reaction was dismay and disgust; the more the president tried to make his case, the less persuasive he became.

Of course, it's always harder to institute a change than it is to stop a change from happening. If the next president is a Democrat, his or her health care reform proposal, for instance, will no doubt be greeted as a frontal assault on all that conservatives hold dear, demanding the most furious and well-funded opposition they can muster. And they'll be right -- as William Kristol warned Republicans in 1993, a successful effort to fix the health care system would "revive the reputation of the party that spends and regulates, the Democrats, as the generous protector of middle-class interests. And it will, at the same time, strike a punishing blow against Republican claims to defend the middle class by restraining government."

The deck is stacked in the Democrats' favor this November, but the more important question is whether the next four or eight years will mark a new era of progressive governance. If a Democratic president could prove that government can solve some of our country's most pressing problems, then success will build on success, and the conservative case will be that much harder to make in coming years -- particularly when the last Republican president was such an all-encompassing disaster. The conservatives certainly know this well, which is why they'll be fighting with all their might, if only to prove that a Democratic president can be just as much a failure.