America Isn’t Center-Right, And Neither Is The GOP

By Alex Schiff, University of Michigan

Alex Biles and I have been going back and forth about the state of politics in the United States. My original post is here, and his rebuttal is here. I also expounded on some thoughts in a response to a comment on my post here, and you can read his response to that here. I deconstruct his most recent argument paragraph-by-paragraph below and have noted who said what with our initials.

AB: The United States has been a center-right nation for decades following the stagflation and subsequent deregulation that occurred in the 1970s. A large reason for the shift is associated with the downfall of organized labor — partially because of anti-labor/pro-business legislation, but also non-related or additional factors (rapid globalization being the most prominent). The 12 years of Reagan and Papa Bush obviously contributed to this paradigm shift as well. But I’d say the biggest ideological slide toward the right in the U.S. ironically took place during Jimmy Carter’s presidency and the Reagan/Thatcher revolutions. There were literally tax revolts in the streets of some of our largest cities.

AS: Well, Alex Biles and I already discussed this, but for the sake of our audience, Ezra Klein debunks the argument that we are truly a center-right nation in a recent post. In the end, though, I think we’re a nation of people that are fairly ambivalent about how we solve problems and just want them solved as quickly as possible, in whatever way that works. It’s people like you and me that debate about the best way to do it. The “silent majority” just wants to know that their families and livelihoods are safe and vote (or don’t even care enough to vote) for whomever seems like the best guardian of those two things. They don’t care about terms like “supply-side” or “Keynesian.”

The reason we often appear to be a center-right nation is that Republicans are, to put it bluntly, better politicians. They’re better negotiators and know how to get what they want without giving up much in return (namely, by starting so far to the right that a firmly conservative solution looks like a compromise in the middle). To me the GOP is like this kid I went to camp with in 3rd grade. He wanted to leave the light on overnight because he was afraid of the dark. Not a single other person in that 10-person cabin wanted the light on and argued with him for like an hour about it. Eventually, he just cried and cried and cried until we acquiesced and kept the light on so we could move on and try to sleep. 90% of the people were pissed because we had to sleep with this bright freaking fluorescent light on all night, but 10% got their way by being loud and obnoxious.

AB: So Alex, I honestly don’t believe that “Republicans are so far to right nowadays.” Yes, the middle is right of center and it HAS BEEN for quite some time. You cite the failure to pass health care reform, but if I remember correctly an even more tame version of Obama’s plan failed to pass during the Clinton years.

AS: This goes back to what I said about Republicans just being better politicians and getting their way. Polls have shown a majority of Americans are in favor of a single-payer system since at least 1987 and continued to do so through 2009 when government involvement was sullied by blatant fear-mongering and lies (death panels anyone?). A single-payer, Medicare-for-all type of universal health care system has failed to pass not because of a lack of public support, but because of a lack of political ability on the part of the left.

AB: I wouldn’t be so quick to cast the GOP as far-right. Where are the serious calls for mass privatization of entitlements or restrictions on immigration at the federal level? Where were the spending cuts and non-existent tax increases during Republican presidencies? (including Reagan: 

AS: Where are the serious calls for mass privatization of entitlements? Here (Medicare) and here (Social Security). If you think these are fringe plans and not representative of the broader GOP trend, read this. Calls for restrictions on immigration at the federal level? Here. Spending cuts in Republican administrations? They didn’t happen, because when it’s a Republican in the White House other Republicans seem to think spending money we don’t have doesn’t matter. This is exactly why I think the GOP is a bunch of loony hypocrites, and it’s also exactly why most conservative and libertarian friends I have refuse to identify with them just as much as they refuse to identify with the Democrats.

AB: And let’s flip the script. Are gun restrictions harsher or more lax than they were in the 1970s? Has religion guided more or less policymaking since that era? Have we become more far-right in terms of how society views minorities? Are we spending more or less on education and welfare assistance at the federal level than the 1970s? In general, do our businesses have to deal with more or less regulation? You unfavorably compare our healthcare system to Canada’s, but what about our present level of corporate taxation?

AS: You’re right that gun regulations are harsher, religion is less influential on policy, etc. But to me that’s exactly my point that we are not a center-right nation and that over time society becomes more progressive (it just takes longer for our policy to catch up). Also, federal spending as a percentage of GDP has remained pretty stagnant. In 1970, that number was 31%. In 2010, it was 40% — BUT, let’s remember that this spending is largely due to the economic crisis and the automatic spending it generates. If you go back to 2007, it was 35%. Sure, that’s an increase, but it’s not the huge liberal bend you seem to suggest.

Besides, most of this is due to rising health care costs (paid automatically by Medicare), not discretionary spending. If you look at the historical records cited here (it’s an Excel file so I can’t link to it directly), “non-defense discretionary spending” (i.e., all the social/welfare/etc. spending conservatives say has been skyrocketing under Obama) has not risen since the 1970’s. Since we’re dealing with a decade and not a specific year, let’s take the average for comparison, which is 4.5% between 1970-1979. And what is that figure in 2010? 4.5%. It hasn’t budged, and it’s projected to go lower and hit 2.8% by 2016. In other words, government spending is playing more of a role in the economy, but not because of any active policy decisions taken since the second President Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress passed the Medicare Part D prescription drug plan.

AB: Alex, I agree with you that the move to the right has made perfectly legitimate proposals from moderate Democrats seem loony, and not for the better. You’ve hit the nail on the head there. I suppose that’s a consequence of the ideological shift and it’s not good for political discourse in this country. I wish I had an easy answer for how to present a balanced view on issues without uttering the words: Fairness Doctrine.

There is one shift that we should really be concerned about and it’s not Dems vs. GOP. It’s the growing income inequality that’s occurring at the top 1 percent. Besides our business leaders and hedge fund managers, this group includes our politicians and bureaucrats. Frank-Dodd and other attempts at regulation in the financial sector have had a minimal effect on restraining their activity. The control over the economy that this group possesses is scary, and is the major reason for the recent crisis that seemed to fuck over everybody — except them.

AS: I wholeheartedly agree with you on these last two paragraphs. And so do the American people.

AB: Apologies for the essay.

AS: No problem, gave me something to write about!



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2 thoughts on “America Isn’t Center-Right, And Neither Is The GOP

  1. I’ll spare you of a complete post reply. It seems that we both agree with Ezra to varying extents, and I stopped waving the center-right banner as strongly several hours ago. I thought your response was well-played in some areas, but of course I have to offer a response on points where I still think you’re off.

    I mentioned serious calls for immigration reform. Just because a bill is introduced and picks up a dozen co-sponsors does not make it serious (see Audit the Fed). Sure, there’s always going to be that border-state Republican who introduces a populist bill like that, but I don’t see it passing. Based on several polls and pieces I looked up, it seems that the anti-illegal fervor has remained virtually stagnant since at least ’08. Keep in mind that during the Bush presidency, border fence and all, with hate-mongering at fever pitch, no comprehensive reform was actually ever put into action.

    I also said mass privatizations, although perhaps I’ll concede this point. I have been under the impression that the Ryan plan is more of a semi-privatization:

    “Starting in 2022, new Medicare beneficiaries will be enrolled in the same kind of health-care program that members of Congress enjoy. Future Medicare recipients will be able to choose a plan that works best for them from a list of guaranteed coverage options. This is not a voucher program but rather a premium-support model. A Medicare premium-support payment would be paid, by Medicare, to the plan chosen by the beneficiary, subsidizing its cost.

    In addition, Medicare will provide increased assistance for lower- income beneficiaries and those with greater health risks. Reform that empowers individuals—with more help for the poor and the sick—will guarantee that Medicare can fulfill the promise of health security for America’s seniors,” says Ryan here (
    ). That doesn’t sound like complete privatization to me, and plus, I have yet to see a Democratic alternative that actually achieves some much-needed reform with regard to Medicare. However, I can see where this amounts to a cup about to spill over though, and you’re correct about to the broader trend, so +1 Schiff?

    With the “flip the script” paragraph, I feel like you validate my point, so no disagreements there. I didn’t mean to suggest a liberal bend as much as I was suggesting that your rhetoric about a far-right sea change is exaggerated. As you state, government spending as a ratio of GDP has remained virtually stagnant. Same with non-discretionary spending. And we both share similar views with regard to cutting defense.

    As it usually turns out though, I think we’ll agree to disagree on the extent of the disproportionate influence the GOP has on policymaking. Americans like their entitlements but they also like their low taxes. The GOP might be the loudest in the room, but calling them babies and then labeling them superior negotiators seems to me a weak analogy. I hate to throw this card in the ring, but as a former staff member for a GOP campaign, the anti-tax and spending cut orthodoxy is quite widespread. Of course, the elderly will vote in their interest to protect entitlement spending, but is that necessarily a good thing — even if it’s reflected in polls? Obviously that’s a whole other piece. But I digress. My broad point: two can play the poll game. For better or worse, I’m confident that GOP rhetoric is not as out of touch with mainstream America as you make it seem.

    It’s quite late here.

    Posted by Alex Biles | July 31, 2011, 8:30 pm
  2. I’ll concede on the immigration debate, as you’re right that it hasn’t gotten quite as out of hand as other policy matters. For the entitlement issue, note that the Ryan plan is just the latest in a long line of Republican initiatives to do so. It’s pretty much been Republican dogma to try to privatize or otherwise undermine entitlement programs since they were enacted, as they are one of liberalism’s long-lasting achievements and a symbol of government involvement in society. Bush made a big push to move toward privatization of social security toward the middle of the term.

    Regarding the “cup about to spill over” perspective, yes, no one is blatantly saying “repeal Medicare and Social Security and replace it with nothing.” They would get laughed out of the room. But anyone with half a brain realizes that the real goal is, whether you agree or disagree, get these programs off of the government books.

    I fail to see how I validated your point in the paragraph you mention. The rhetorical questions seemed to be implying that our society was becoming more liberal. Socially I believe we have. But fiscally we haven’t become a more liberal society as those numbers show. I thought you were suggesting that we were. If I was wrong, then it was a misunderstanding.

    That’s absolutely my point that the anti-tax, cut-spending-at-all-costs ideology is widespread in the Republican Party. It IS their ideology. The extreme extension of that ideology is the Tea Party. My argument is not that the entire GOP caucus identifies with the Tea Party, or that they bow before them. It’s that the Tea Party STARTS the conversation so far to the right that other previously-more-mainstream Republicans feel more comfortable moving more toward ideological purity and away from pragmatism than they used to be. In other words, I’m not saying that Jim DeMint is representative of the entire GOP — I’m saying that his colleagues have given other Republicans the room to be more conservative in their views without risking looking like fringe politicians.

    Posted by Alex Schiff | July 31, 2011, 11:50 pm

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