Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Center Right America?

You may have read this article a few weeks ago. It argues that despite the 2008 presidential election results America is at core a conservative country rather than a liberal country. Then others responded to the initial article and the game was on.

I never got to writing on the topic, what with all those other attractive topics out there, but I still have some opinions on it. These are opinions, mind you, not evidence or facts, though they don't conflict with the evidence that I have seen. In any case, to write about the evidence is kinda boring, because I'd have to start by discussing what people might mean with the words 'conservative' and 'liberal' and how we can measure something called 'center-right' and how fiscal conservatism and social conservatism are treated in those definitions and so on. Are you not glad you avoided that?

So onwards and upwards to my opinions. One of my most striking first impressions about this country (right after the size of the cars on the roads) was the very open distrust and dislike of the government. All sorts of people expressed it to me, not just fiscal conservatives.

This hatred of the government wasn't similar to the complaints and criticisms I had heard in Europe; it was a deeper reaction, perhaps something passed on by earlier generations, something which saw the government as a breathing and scheming creature, alive and desiring our hearts' blood. People gathered together in a market place were good, people gathered together to govern were bad.

I recall filing this hatred of the ruling classes under the consequences of the religious persecution many early immigrants from Europe had experienced and the way such memories are passed on through generations. But this may be only partially correct. The distrust of the government has now entered into the general American mythology, and that distrust is both stronger than in other countries I know about and slightly different in quality. Perhaps more primal.

At the same time, Americans are not especially conservative concerning government policies, rather the reverse. Or at least the majority of responses in polls about how much money to spend on public education and whether we should have a single-payer health care system can be quite leftish if the questions are framed a certain way. If the questions are framed in a different way, well, we get support for the idea that this country is at heart conservative.

Note that the discussion on this fascinating topic rarely distinguishes between social conservatism and fiscal conservatism, even though the two are not always twinned with each other. It would be quite possible for Americans to be, on average, social conservatives and fiscal liberals or vice versa. Given the religious right in this country, it's no wonder that Americans, on average, express less egalitarian gender views than people in other countries of the same economic type.

All that sounds like waffling, and it is. But the question about the inherent nature of Americans is an impossible one to answer in some quick-and-facile way. It also doesn't pay enough attention to the way public opinion is molded by the media and the propaganda people and it doesn't pay enough attention to the way the system of government in this country is an inherently foot-dragging one. It's hard to make change happen.

At the same time, the United States is really a collection of smaller countries and those countries tend to have very different levels of conservatism. Louisiana is not Massachusetts, for example.

If I had to express a decisive opinion on this overall question I'd probably start with pointing out that Obama really should have won by gigantic margins, given the actual history of George Bush's reign and the levels of damage the Republican ideology has caused this country and the world, from unnecessary wars to economic catastrophe. That the margins were not that gigantic is a little frightening. But it doesn't necessarily mean that the average American or even the average voter is conservative when it comes to the policies they'd like to see executed. I'd look for that conservative effect in the institutions of this country, in the way money plays a big role in who actually has the freedom to be heard in politics and in the way the media tends corporate in its coverage choices.