The Great Center-Right Delusion

From The New York Times

Politicians and pundits get America wrong.

By Paul Krugman
Oct. 31, 2018

What’s driving American politics off a cliff? Racial hatred and the cynicism of politicians willing to exploit it play a central role. But there are other factors. And an opinion piece by Hertel-Fernandez, Mildenberger, and Stokes in today’s Times (which is actually social science, not opinion!) seems to confirm something I already suspected: misunderstanding of what voters want is distorting both political positioning and public policy.

What the authors of the piece show is that congressional aides grossly misperceive the views of their bosses’ constituents; this is true in both parties, but more so of Republicans. What they don’t point out explicitly is that with the exception of A.C.A. repeal, Democrats err in the same direction as Republicans, just less so. Specifically, both parties believe that the public is to the right of where it really is.

An aside on A.C.A. repeal: I wonder what’s really going on here. Lots of polling suggests that voters overwhelmingly want protection for pre-existing conditions and subsidies to help lower-income Americans afford insurance — that is, they want the substance of the A.C.A., even if they say they disapprove of the law. So I’d take this result with a grain of salt: Democrats may not be as wrong here as it appears.

Anyway, what I’d really like to see are comparable surveys of other groups — say, political analysts for major media organizations. Why? Because I suspect we’d see a similar result: people who opine on politics also imagine that voters are farther to the right than they really are. What I’m suggesting, in other words, is that there’s a shared inside-the-Beltway delusion: that America is a conservative, or at most center-right nation, a view that isn’t grounded in reality.

It’s true that Republicans, who are increasingly a far-right party, have been more than competitive politically, controlling the White House, the House of Representatives, or both for all but four of the past 24 years. But this owes a lot to a tilted playing field — they only won the popular vote for president once over that stretch, and can hold the House even when Democrats get a lot more votes.

And it also reflects a political strategy in which Republicans run on anything but their policies. Trump’s frantic attempt to make next week’s election about scary brown people rather than health care or tax cuts is cruder and uglier than anything we’ve seen for a long time, but it’s not fundamentally out of character. Bush the elder ran against Willie Horton. Bush the younger ran on national security. Their actual policies, not so much.

In fact, we got an object lesson in the dissonance between G.O.P. electioneering and public preferences in 2004-5. Bush made it a national security election, with a tinge of culture war; as I used to joke, he ran as the enemy of gay married terrorists. Then, with victory under his belt, he proclaimed that he had a mandate to privatize Social Security. He didn’t.

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