For quite a while now pundits have casually thrown around the idea that we’re a center-right country – a country with old-fashioned mostly conservative ideas and values. But it’s time – maybe even past time – to re-think the premise.
This came to mind because of what just happened in Iowa where Bernie Sanders, a socialist, finished in a virtual dead-heat with Hillary Clinton. That shouldn’t surprise anyone who happened to stumble upon a poll that came out right before the caucuses – a poll that found that 43 percent of likely Democratic voters in Iowa said they would use the word “socialist” to describe themselves.
Socialism never caught on in America, though Franklin Roosevelt gave it the old college try. Yet in Iowa – right there in the heartland of America – more than 4 out of 10 members of a major political party self-describe as socialists. This, I think, is quite remarkable.
But wait, Ted Cruz won on the Republican side and he was the most conservative candidate in the race. Which proves that not everyone in Iowa wants to turn the United States into Sweden. So let’s agree that Iowa voters are both very liberal and very conservative – and almost half of the liberals think socialism is just dandy.
But this fascination with socialism goes way beyond little, ole rural, white Iowa. Bernie Sanders makes no secret of the fact that he is a proponent of income redistribution and believes the federal government has a moral obligation to take from the wealthy and spread it around to those who aren’t. He’s proud of his socialism. So what should we make of this: According to a New York Times/CBS News poll last November, 56 percent of Democratic primary voters nationwide said they had positive feelings about socialism as a governing philosophy while only 29 percent said they had a negative view. Fifty-six percent!
Republicans, of course, aren’t fans of socialism – or of any of the baggage that goes along with it, like higher taxes that stifle economic growth or bigger government that’s needed to implement more and more expensive government programs. But the two Republicans who ran for president in 2008 and 2012 – neither one a scary right-winger who frightens the kids and the pets – were rejected by a majority of the American people who thought they’d be better off with one of the most liberal politicians ever to win the White House.
Can that America really be considered center-right?
In 2013, Ben Zweifach, then the editor of the Yale Law Review, questioned the old premise, that we’re a center-right nation. “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 … and now a majority of Americans support gay marriage.”
Does any of that sound center-right?
None of this is to predict a Democratic victory in November. But in critical times it’s important to state the obvious, so here goes: Democrats, in Iowa and beyond, are playing deep left field these days – and that’s no longer a bad place to be in American politics.
If Bernie Sanders wins in New Hampshire, a state right next door to his home in Vermont, a state that has him way up in the polls, then, while his nomination would still be a long shot, it won’t be out of the question. And that alone is enough, I think, for pundits to re-think the long-held idea that we’re still basically a right-of-center country.
And even if the socialist Mr. Sanders doesn’t win the nomination and the progressive Mrs. Clinton does — that’s also evidence that we’re not in Ronald Reagan’s America any more. Hillary, after all, is a lot more like Bernie than she is like Bill.
But what if a conservative Republican wins the White House? Then I’ll reconsider. But not until then.