November 10, 2008
A 'Center-Right' Country? We Shall See.By Steven M. Warshawsky
In the aftermath of Barack Obama's decisive win on Tuesday, Republicans and conservatives have begun the inevitable, and necessary, process of asking, "What now?" Answering this question will require answering a multitude of subsidiary questions, including: Who voted in the election? What were their demographic backgrounds? What should John McCain have done differently in his campaign? Would another Republican candidate have fared better against Obama? What "message" were the voters sending in electing Obama? And so on.
However, the overarching question that is on everyone's minds is: What do the election results reveal about the fundamental ideological orientation of the country? Put simply, do we remain a "center-right" country? Or have we become a "center-left" country?
Before the election, my own view was that we were a center-right country, but one that has been tacking left for decades. Nevertheless, I assumed that we remained a right-leaning nation, as evidenced by the past forty years of presidential politics. And I firmly believed that the American people -- in particular, working- and middle-class voters -- would reject the most liberal Democratic presidential candidate in history. I was wrong . Now I am not sure where the country stands ideologically.
Others remain confident in the basic conservatism of the American people. Karl Rove, writing in the Wall Street Journal, duly credits Obama and his advisors for running an effective campaign. Still, Rove confidently asserts that Obama won "in a country that remains center-right." What evidence does Rove provide for this view? Pre- and post-election polls that report that 22% of Americans consider themselves liberal, 34% consider themselves conservative, and 44% consider themselves moderate.
Douglas Schoen, who was Bill Clinton's pollster in 1996, similarly argues that Barack Obama "owes his victory not to the left, but to the middle." Schoen cites the same poll results that Rove relies on. Pointing to the large increase in the percentage of "moderate" voters who cast their votes for Obama in 2008, as compared to John Kerry in 2004, Schoen concludes that "[t]he country has not shifted further left. Rather, in all likelihood, the Democratic Party has shifted further right."
Huh? The Democratic Party has become more conservative? How can that be? Forgive me for my new-found skepticism - making spectacularly wrong predictions before tens of thousands of people is a humbling experience - but I cannot share this confidence that "conservatism" remains alive and well in the United States of America circa 2008.
One problem with the analysis offered by Rove and Schoen is that it assumes that voters who identify themselves as "liberal" or "moderate" or "conservative" interpret those labels the same way that Rove and Schoen do. And Rove and Schoen obviously believe that the "moderate" label implies that a person is right-leaning instead of left-leaning. But is this correct? Again, I'm skeptical. Until someone explains why supposedly right-leaning voters flocked to Barack Obama, it seems to me that the notion that such voters are "conservative" should be taken with more than a grain of salt.
But what about the success of the anti-gay marriage proposition in California? Interestingly, exit polls indicate that it was opposed by most white voters and supported by most black voters. Does this mean that black voters actually are "conservative"? Hardly. Or consider abortion. The abortion laws in Western Europe are more restrictive than those in this country. Does this mean that Western Europe is more "conservative" than the United States? Clearly not.
Then what do we mean by "conservatism"? Until we define what we mean by conservatism, we will not be able to determine where the ideological balance lies in the United States.
My own view is that "conservatism," at bottom, is not about opposing gay marriage or abortion, as important as those positions are.
Conservatism is about economic and political freedom. This means, first and foremost, limited government. Truly limited government.
Consider the furor over earmarks. Opposing earmarks is nice, but in 2008 they accounted for approximately $17 billion of federal spending. In comparison, Social Security and Medicare - which tax current workers to provide benefits to current retirees, i.e., "middle-class welfare" - accounted for approximately $1.2 trillion of federal spending (roughly 70 times more than earmarks). Do these programs provide much needed support for people who are elderly, disabled, and less well off? Yes, they do. But in a "conservative" country, these folks would be taken care of by their families, friends, and charities. Not to mention, themselves. In a "conservative" country, people save for their own retirements; they do not use the power of the state to tax their fellow citizens for their own personal benefit.
We'll see whether, under an Obama administration, the American people decide to give themselves yet another middle-class welfare program in the form of national health insurance. The "liberal" voters who supported Obama obviously think this is good idea. I suspect that many of the "moderate" voters who voted for Obama do too. If so, how can we call them "conservative"?
Or consider the progressive income tax. According to a recent article in The American, IRS data shows that in 2006 the top 1% of taxpayers earned 22% of total national income, but paid 40% of federal income taxes. The top 5% of taxpayers earned 37% of total national income, but paid more than 60% of federal income taxes. The top 10% of taxpayers earned 47% of total national income, but paid almost 71% of federal income taxes. In contrast, the bottom 20% of taxpayers earned a little less than 5% of total national income, but paid less than 1% of federal income taxes. The next 20% of taxpayers earned almost 10% of total national income, but paid only 4% of federal income taxes. Moreover, in the past 20 years, the federal income tax has become more progressive, not less. This means that today "rich" people pay an even larger share of federal income taxes than they did when Ronald Reagan was president.
Some people may be offended by the large percentage of total national income earned by the top 10% of taxpayers. They may believe that higher income earners should pay a larger share (not just a larger amount) of taxes. Well, in my opinion, such people are not "conservative." Whether they admit it or not, such people believe that other people's money, other people's property, somehow belongs to them. However, a commitment to economic liberty necessarily implies that people of differing abilities, talents, and ambitions will achieve different levels of financial success in life. It certainly does not imply that "rich" people are less entitled to the fruits of their labor than middle-class or poor people. This is the philosophy of communism -- from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs -- that undergirds the progressive income tax in this country. Furthermore, the progressive income tax and middle-class welfare programs go hand-in-hand. A "flat tax" never will be possible so long as the government is expected to "spread the wealth" in the form of retirement, health care, education, and other benefits.
So what does this mean in terms of whether we are a "center-right" nation or a "center-left" nation? We won't have a good handle on where the country stands ideologically until we see what actually happens over the next two years. Will the American people decide to impose higher taxes on the "rich" to pay for the smorgasbord of social and economic benefits that Obama and the Democrats are promising? If so, we are center-left. Will there be a 1994-style revolt against an overreaching liberal administration? If so, we are center-right. It is too early to say.
Pat Toomey, president of the Club for Growth that "[a]ny attempt to jam higher taxes and spending and increased regulation down the throats of American voters will be met with opposition -- not just from the right, but also from the center of the electorate." Toomey bases his position on internal polling data from 12 "swing" congressional districts (out of 435), which supposedly shows that these voters remain committed to limited government and economic freedom - although 11 of these districts "flipped to Democratic control." Nevertheless, Toomey maintains that "voters have not rejected conservative ideals." Again, we shall see.
Perhaps I am being too skeptical about the future of "conservatism" in this country. Perhaps I am overreacting to my wrong prediction about the election. But, quite frankly, I find it extremely difficult to interpret Obama's victory as an endorsement of Reaganism.
Still, as George Will notes, "[o]pinion is shiftable sand. It can be shifted, as Goldwater understood, by ideas."
The Left knows what ideas it believes in.
The question is: Do conservatives?
Steven M. Warshawsky is an attorney in New York City.