America On The March: Left, Right

If last year's biggest political story was the tea-party-inspired "shellacking" that Republicans gave Democrats in the midterm elections, this year's, at least so far, is that the actions of two formerly obscure Wisconsin Republicans - Gov. Scott Walker and Rep. Paul Ryan - are now putting the Democratic Party in a position to give the GOP a "shellacking" of its own in 2012.

After literally and symbolically turning his back on "Fighting Bob" La Follette, Wisconsin's historically most renowned political figure, at his inauguration, Walker attempted to solve his state's budget problems by stripping state employees of most of their collective-bargaining rights. Ryan's proposal to reduce the federal deficit by turning Medicare into a voucher program similarly struck at the heart of a program Democrats hold sacred. Both actions have proved to be an overreach that rallied a dispirited Democratic base, upset nonaffiliated voters and even turned a fair number of Republican senior citizens in upstate New York against their party.

What Walker, Ryan and their Republican allies have forgotten is that American political philosophy and opinion are neither left nor right but both at the same time. Democrats also cannot afford to indulge in schadenfreude over their GOP opponents' current miseries and fail to heed the same lesson. America is neither center-right, as conservatives claim, nor center-left, as liberals might wish.

President Barack Obama's frequent remarks on the two strands in America's DNA, as well as his recent policy decisions, make it clear he understands this uniquely American phenomenon. On the one hand, he has said, we believe in limited government coupled with individual freedom and responsibility. On the other, we endorse the idea of community and joint action, working through government, that helps individuals by providing them with a measure of economic security and equal opportunity.

Using Gallup Poll data collected during the 1964 campaign between Lyndon B. Johnson and Barry Goldwater, public opinion researchers Lloyd A. Free and Hadley Cantril first empirically documented the existence of those two tendencies in the nation's political psyche. They found that a majority of Americans were both "ideological conservatives" (50 percent) and "operational (or programmatic) liberals" (65 percent). The public believed in small government and individual initiative, while at the same time endorsing an array of specific federal programs ranging from "compulsory medical insurance for the elderly" to public housing and aid to education.

Using questions from Pew Research Center surveys conducted in 1987, 1994, 2002 and 2009 that offered facsimiles of those used by Free and Cantril, we were able to demonstrate that these attitudes persist to this day. Across the four surveys, ideological conservatives outnumbered ideological liberals by a ratio of 3.5-to-1. By contrast, operational or programmatic liberals outnumbered operational conservatives by 2.2-to-1. In 1987 (the penultimate year of the Reagan administration) and 1994 (the year of the Gingrich revolution), conservative beliefs, particularly on the ideological scale, were at their peak. In 2002 (a year after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks) and in 2009 (the year following the start of the Great Recession), attitudes moved in a liberal direction, especially on the operational scale. But in every survey, there were always more ideological conservatives than ideological liberals and more operational liberals than operational conservatives.

Nowhere is this dichotomy more evident than in the debate over how to reduce the federal deficit. In a March 2011 Pew survey, a majority (53 percent) of respondents agreed that reducing the deficit should be a top priority this year (although slightly larger numbers placed a premium on dealing with unemployment and inflation than on deficit reduction). When asked, "What should be done to lower the deficit?" most preferred a generic reduction of domestic (61 percent) and defense (49 percent) spending. On the other hand, less than a third (30 percent) specifically favored changes to Social Security and Medicare, and only 20 percent endorsed a complete reliance on major program cuts rather than a combination of spending cuts and tax increases (64 percent).

The decisions by the two Wisconsin Republicans have now become ideological litmus tests for every Republican presidential candidate, even as evidence continues to accumulate that those policies are deeply unpopular. As Newt Gingrich has said, this makes it ever more likely that the 2012 presidential election will join others in our history in which a new, long-lasting and widely accepted balance is struck between the nation's competing ideological and operational or programmatic beliefs.

The Democrats would, of course, prefer that the coming campaign be waged primarily on the programmatic side of the divide, while the GOP would like the focus to be centered on small government ideology. But to properly reflect the complexity of American political opinion, each party will have to leave its comfort zone and successfully speak to the other side of the equation. This means that Democrats, as Bill Clinton recently admonished and Barack Obama seems to recognize, will have to figure out a way to deal forthrightly with public concerns about the deficit, while still protecting programs such as Medicare and Pell Grants for college students, in which they - and the American public - believe so strongly. At the same time, Republicans will have to avoid what Gingrich accurately called "radical right-wing social engineering" and consider the possibility of increasing taxes, while maintaining their core small government and individual liberty values.

The party that develops the most effective synthesis of the nation's dueling beliefs in limited government and individual freedom as well as its support for collective action through specific governmental programs is the one that will dominate both American electoral politics and policymaking in the decades ahead.