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Op Eds

What Is Center?

By Michael F. Cotter

In 1912, the adamantly socialist Eugene V. Debs won over 900,000 votes for president.  William Howard Taft, the sitting president and lone conservative on the ticket, captured just over 3,400,000. Imagine, for a moment, an America where a vocal socialist wins over one-quarter as many votes as the conservative, let alone a sitting president.  And I’m not talking about the kind of  “socialist” Newt Gingrich sees when watching President Obama on T.V.  Debs was in and out of jail, co-founded the International Workers of the World, and was arrested during the Pullman Strike of 1894.  That is a socialist.  And for every four people that voted for a Republican in 1912, one voted for Debs.

Today, 100 years later, a full 40 percent of Americans self-describe as conservative, while 35 percent identify as moderate, and a measly 21 percent call themselves liberal.  As for socialists, they may never top one percent again. Despite what right-wing pundits would have Americans believe, there is no American “left” anymore—just the remnants of what used to be called the center. The causes of this seismic change in America’s ideological landscape are innumerable, and the shift probably owes more to the increased material prosperity of the average American citizen than any other single factor. Yet it seems that our country is on a runaway train about to plunge off the rightward edge of the map.  This shift has been accelerated and intensified by folks like Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, who have harnessed the social and cultural conservatism of many Americans and blended them into a form of so-called “economic conservatism” better described as anti-tax orthodoxy.

Our nation’s race to the right has harmful ramifications that go beyond just making liberals wistful. In 2007, levels of income inequality reached their highest point since 1928, with the top one percent of households bringing in 23.5 percent of the nation’s income.  We all know what happened in 1929—and 2008.  There is no denying it: Economies are healthier when income distribution is more equal.  And the view, espoused by everyone from Speaker John A. Boehner, down to my 84-year-old government-subsidized great-aunt, that we need to keep taxes low on the rich, just isn’t remedying the problem.

Probably the most surprising and unnerving thing about America’s rightward plunge is that it seems to have no stopping point.  As the Republican Party moves right, the Democratic Party adjusts to encompass the people who used to make up the center.  And then the Republicans move further right.  Case-in-point: healthcare.  People used to think that Nixon was conservative. He did, after all, pioneer the now-infamous Southern Strategy, capturing the South for the Republicans with racially charged tactics.  Yet in 1974, Nixon proposed the Comprehensive Health Insurance Act, which included both an employer insurance mandate and a Medicare-style program available to everyone.  And the late Edward M. Kennedy ’54-’56 opposed the measure because it was too conservative!

Fast-forward twenty years, to 1994. At that time, a group of Republican senators including Orrin G. Hatch (R-UT) and Charles E. “Chuck”

Grassley (R-IA) introduced a bill containing the individual health insurance mandate as the conservative response to Clinton’s (and Nixon’s) employer mandate.  It was too conservative for Democrats at the time, but eventually, a new generation of Democrats, including President Obama, came around to it.  But by that time, the conservatives, many of them the same as those that had concocted the individual mandate, deemed that it was an affront to liberty.

How does the Republican party continue its triumphant march to the right, while the Democrats are constantly making compromise after compromise, with rarely a victory worth mentioning?  Part of it is the deft disbursal of misinformation by the Right. Republicans are talented at messaging, and, in a democracy, that’s more than half the battle. Another is the fact that social and economic conservatism have been bound together skillfully by the right.  Somehow, our political system dictates that if you oppose abortion and gay marriage, you also oppose increasing taxes on the rich. It was not always so, and that is part of what allowed FDR to win sweeping support in places like Louisiana where government programs were once tremendously popular.  If the rightward plunge of America is to stop, liberal politicians need to get better at bringing their economic ideas to the people.  As long as my 84-year-old government-subsidized great-aunt thinks that extending the Bush Tax Cuts is in her best interest, the Democratic message machine is broken.

Michael F. Cotter ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Winthrop House.

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