Center-Right / Center-Left – Transpartisan Americans All

Transpartisan Note #71

by A. Lawrence Chickering and James S. Turner

Eric Levitz writes, in the New York Times November 1st, that “America is not a ‘Center-Right Nation’.  In fact, on economic policy, America is a center-left nation.”  He points to certain facts:

  • The vast majority of the American electorate has no ideology, whatsoever.
  • When polled on discrete policy questions, Americans consistently express majoritarian support for a left-of-center economic agenda.
  • Over the past eight years, Democrats lost control of more than 1,000 state legislative seats, the House, the Senate and the presidency.

Mr. Levitz cites two books published more than fifty years apart arguing that Americans have no ideology:

  • Political scientist Philip Converse’s classic 1964 essay “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics,” demonstrated that only 17 percent of American voters could both correctly assign the terms “liberal” and “conservative” to the nation’s two major political parties and offer a sensible description of what those terms meant.
  • Political scientists Donald Kinder and Nathan Kalmoe’s 2017 book “Neither Liberal Nor Conservative: Ideological Innocence in the American Public,” shows that the electorate is scarcely more ideological today, at the peak of partisan polarization, than it was at the height of the New Deal consensus (when Mr. Converse published his landmark study).

Mr. Levitz summarizes his point saying, “Or as Mr. Kinder and Mr. Kalmoe conclude an analysis of four decades of voter survey data, ‘ideological identification seems more a reflection of political decisions than a cause.’ In other words: The average conservative Republican isn’t a Republican because she’s a conservative — she self-identifies as a conservative because she’s a Republican.”

“One crucial implication of this finding,” Mr. Levitz says, “is that political elites have enormous power to dictate ideological terms to their rank-and-file supporters. For a healthy chunk of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats, the ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ position on most issues is whatever their party leaders say it is.”

The nearly seventy percent of the public that distances itself from the two major parties—we call them transpartisan— resist being dictated to and look to sources other than political elites for the value terms of their political choices.  Ordinary voters, Mr. Levitz says, select the party that appears “to best represent their people, a group they might define with reference to class, region, religion, race or partisanship itself.”

“This make intuitive sense,” he says, “The left-to-right political spectrum is a construct born of seating arrangements during the French Revolution. The impulse to define oneself in relation to an in-group — and opposition to an out-group — is a survival strategy that’s been with us since the dawn of our species.”

The vast majority of Americans avoid locking themselves into the left (dispatch the king)/right (save the king) seating chart of the 1789 French National Assembly.  They are transpartisan.

Changing the subtitle of the Kinder/Kalmoe book makes the point. “Neither Liberal Nor Conservative” calls current voting behavior the “Ideological Innocence in the American Public.”

In fact current voting behavior might demonstrate the ideological Sophistication of the American public. It is possible that transpartisan Americans know their politics. “Ideological” parties may miss the point.

We are all left.  We are all right.  We are all Transpartisan.

Photo: Filip Bunkens

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