Opinion: The Great Center-Right delusion

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 New York 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 ACA 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.

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.

So what are the effects of this delusion of America as a center-right nation?

Hertel-Fernandez et al note correctly that the Trump tax cut has proved consistently unpopular; they don’t point out that at first Republicans were sure that it would be a big political winner: “If we can’t sell this to the American people, we ought to go into another line of work,” declared Mitch McConnell. But they couldn’t sell it, and the tax cut has virtually disappeared from GOP messaging.

Which brings me to something David Roberts wrote yesterday, which complements something I’ve been thinking for a while. He notes, in regard to the frame-Mueller debacle, that we’re dealing with the “second generation of Fox News conservatives,” who grew up entirely inside the right-wing bubble and don’t understand how people outside that bubble talk, think, and behave.

I’d say that this goes even more for professional GOP politicos, who are all apparatchiks. They don’t even realize that their party’s success has been based on racial antagonism, that most people want to raise taxes on the rich and maintain social benefits.

And this, by the way, is where Trump has an advantage. He didn’t grow up in the conservative hothouse; his very crudity means that he understands that his electoral chances depend not on repeating conservative pieties but on maximum ugliness.

Writes for The New York Times.

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