Saying America is "center-right" isn't just wrong. It's meaningless.
And most important, the proportion of Americans who favor government help for people who can't care for themselves has increased steadily in the last 12 years, from 57 percent in 1994 to 69 percent in 2007, according to a 2007 Pew survey. At the same time, conservatives have changed their views on any number of social issues. As Hoover Institution fellow Tod Lindberg pointed out recently in the Washington Post: "In 1980, having a teenage daughter who was pregnant out of wedlock would have ruled you out for the No. 2 spot on the Democratic ticket. This year, it turned out to be a humanizing addition to the conservative vice presidential nominee's résumé."
Still, let's forget all this and pretend that the evidence of America's center-rightness is rock-solid. We are a center-right nation. We are then left with the task of defining what that means.
The answer? It means nothing. What makes someone a righty or lefty? Self-identification is out—as we have seen, a self-styled liberal can hold conservative views and vice versa. Is it policy? That's not entirely clear, either. Foreign intervention is associated with neocons, but many conservatives favor restraint when it comes to invading other countries. Protectionism is pegged as liberal, but it's a conservative policy in the sense of conserving the existing order. School vouchers are considered conservative, but many liberals, including Obama, support them. It certainly isn't about party. Republicans no longer have a monopoly on fiscal restraint, and polls show that Americans trust Democrats more to handle the economy.
In other words, even if the country were center-right, it isn't necessarily good news for the GOP.
So why does the center-right meme persist? Good marketing, mostly. After the 1970s, liberal became something of a slur, associated as it was with love-ins, bra-burning, and moral equivalence. Even people who supported big government avoided the word. At the same time, conservatism became equated with responsibility and economic growth. Even today, a full quarter of Democrats identify themselves as conservative, according to Pew. In other words, Americans call themselves conservative more because of the residual backlash against 1960s and '70s social upheaval than because of their real-world beliefs.
"Center-right" also survives because Bush is at least partly responsible for Obama's victory. Sure, many Americans undoubtedly voted for Obama because they like his plans for taxes or withdrawal from Iraq or health care. But others voted for him because he's a Democrat and Bush isn't.
Take the economy: Obama polled well not because he knew more about economics but because people blamed Bush for the meltdown. Republicans can therefore chalk his victory up to the economy, without acknowledging the ideological shifts that might have helped Obama win even if the credit markets hadn't collapsed. Complicating things further are Bush's spendthrift ways, which many conservatives have watched with fury. If it's fiscal conservatism America wants, electing a Republican is no longer a sure fix.
Ironically, the fate of the center-right debate may depend on Obama. If more bailouts drive up the deficit as the country falls deeper into recession, Americans may sour on the idea of rescue liberalism. (Right now more than half support bailing out Detroit.) Same if Obama pulls out of Iraq and the country sinks back into chaos. Or if he devotes massive resources to reforming health care, only to have prices skyrocket and hospital lines snake around the block.
On the other hand, liberalism could become more popular if Obama succeeds. Just as the "conservative" label still benefits from Reagan's perceived success, the "liberal" label could benefit from a successful Obama administration. For now, the future of liberalism—as well as that of center-rightism—rests on Obama's shoulders.
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.