Saturday, November 16, 2013

Are We Really a Center-Right Country?

Some random thoughts on a Saturday morning...

A few weeks ago, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush told a dinner audience, "We're a center-right country." Bush was articulating a theme that he has pushed for several months now and that will probably be the message of his 2016 presidential campaign, if he undertakes one. (I'm skeptical.) It's a fairly uncontroversial statement, since it has been taken as conventional wisdom for some time now that the United States is indeed "center-right." But I'm not so sure.

There's some truth to it, of course. Polls show that Americans dislike higher taxes and believe the Second Amendment gives people the right to bear arms. They think the high budget deficit is a problem, and they want government spending cut back (at least in the abstract).

But there's just as much evidence in the other direction—some of it quite surprising. Most Americans believe women have the right to get an abortion. All the evidence suggests that a majority of the country now supports the right of same-sex couples to marry. And a recent poll found that 58% believe marijuana should be legalized.

How to square these inconsistencies? Well, I think it's obvious that America's not a center-right country, but rather a libertarian-leaning country. All of the general attitudes described above lean in the direction of individual liberties and rights; they're actually not inconsistent at all.

The notion that we're actually a libertarian-leaning nation also fits with common sense. The "center-right" theory stems largely from a comparison with ultra-liberal Europe. But the comparison might better be between that continent's nanny states and watchful eyes and America's more individualist spirit. That was what set Americans apart from the very beginning: an emphasis on natural-born rights and the manifest-destiny ideals of building a life for yourself with just your own two hands.

And we might be becoming even more libertarian, with the attitudes of younger voters and my Millennial generation skewing strongly in this direction. Although I hate to conclude on such a trite point, the fact that America is really a libertarian nation may be why so many people feel like the two-party system is failing the country. We may increasingly be becoming a nation that isn't best described on a traditional left-right spectrum. The parties have done a good job historically of adapting to the adjusting attitudes among the American people, and I think they will adapt again if this really is the case. But in the meantime, when you hear politicians debating over whether we are a "center-right" or "center-left" country, I think it may be fair to wonder whether they are missing the point—and thus epitomizing the current disconnect between Washington and the 50 states.

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