It turns out that the American political center is occupied by a purple-colored straw man, according to a well-designed and numbers-heavy report from Esquire magazine and NBC News. It's a report that tried its damnedest to find a centrist majority in the United States, and, thanks to some clever categorizing, succeeded.
Centrists love being centrists. In all things, really, but particularly in politics, there's an allure to being a member of a group that's not beholden to prefabricated opinions. Even the word applied to such people in politics — independents — conjures images of cowboys riding the range, refusing to vote a straight ticket. The problem is that, like any term, it only applies under certain conditions. Is Michael Bloomberg, who's belonged to every political party offered, a centrist? Maybe, in New York. Everywhere else, he's a Democrat. But he doesn't want to be a Democrat. He wants to be a centrist. And for that, Esquire and NBC are here to help.
"The very real shift that we see," says Daniel Franklin of polling firm the Benenson Group, "isn't one that you'd find if you are only thinking of defining the country in terms of deep blue and deep red." Well, right. If you think that America is deeply polarized and there's no center than, yeah, you might not see the center? But the Esquire/NBC team thinks it's OK for Bloomberg to be a centrist. All we need to do is inflate what counts as centrism, and, voila, everyone is happy.
So what does the center look like? Well, there are eight groups of Americans, it turns out. Here is how they are named.
- The Bleeding Hearts (10 percent of America)
- The Gospel Left (11 percent)
- Minivan Moderates (14 percent)
- The MBA Middle (13 percent)
- The Pickup Populists (12 percent)
- The #Whateverman (13 percent)
- The Righteous Right (14 percent)
- The Talk Radio Heads (14 percent)
(We will leave as an exercise to others critique of the name "Gospel Left" to apply to a population of largely African-American women for whom the "TV avatar" is listed as "Madea," the older black woman portrayed by Tyler Perry, at right.) (Also the group name that includes a hashtag.)
No group is less than 10 percent of the population or more than 14 percent. It's all of America, dropped into one of eight similarly-sized slices of pie. Why those eight? How does everyone fit so neatly? Simple. Because the pollsters squeezed everyone into this package. Under the "methodology" section of the piece is a dense bit of verbiage outlining how the process worked. The pollsters used "a k-means clustering technique" to group people into segments, ultimately "select[ing] the segmentation solution that yielded the most unique and differentiated clusters." Eight pie slices, with everyone in America dropped into the one that fits them best. The very real shift we see isn't one you find if you define America as deep blue or deep red. You need six more categories.
The real question, the question on which literally everything else hinges, is what comprises the groups that are squeezed into the center. "What we found," the report reads, "is very surprising: Not only is the center not shrinking, but it is growing, and now actually constitutes approximately 51 percent of the electorate, spanning the full range of income and geography." All of the graphs and data and reporting swirls around this idea that just over half of America is part of this beautiful purple mountain's majesty. But why these four slices of the eight-slice pie are in the center is far from clear.
For example, how would you describe a person that supports gay marriage, a carbon tax, choice, raising taxes on the wealthy, and gun control and who is part of a group that voted two-to-one for President Obama in 2012? The correct answer, according to a rational person, is "a Democrat." According to Esquire and NBC, this person, a "minivan moderate," is in the center. Why? Who knows! More than a third of the Esquire-defined "center" self-identifies as Democrats and a fifth as liberals — but the pollsters decided they weren't really Democrats or liberals. The rationale for this is never articulated.
There's one hint offered in the description of the minivan moderates: "their wariness of government regulation puts them in the center." So they can overwhlemingly favor Obama, hold hard-left positions on social issues, and generally shun religion, but because they are indifferent to government regulation, they're in the center. It uses one subset of political belief — a potent one, but still only one — as the primary differentiator of someone's entire philosophy. Mostly, it's hard not to assume, because having three lefty pie slices and three centrist pie slices would have looked uneven. (And would drop "the center" below 50 percent of the population.)
The report does a good job of obscuring the completely arbitrary way in which it defines the center. Most of the polling data offered offers only the views of the centrist group, which prevents you from comparing their opinions to those on the left or right. Attitudes toward affirmative action is one telling instance where the comparison can be made directly. The center is "tired of affirmative action," the story suggests, showing polling that indicates 30 percent of them strongly supports ending affirmative action requirements. But then, next to the big colorful graph, a block of text: "the support for affirmative action and immigration reform on the Left is soft — a bare majority supports both causes — while the opposition from the right is very strong." So, in other words, the center's opinion doesn't differ much from the left's. Oh, OK.
This is why we called the study a straw man from the outset. Very few people who understand American politics beyond the most abjectly superficial level think that people hold entirely party-line views. Everyone knows that issues draw together different constituencies. It's not just that the pollsters' clustering is artificial, necessarily inelegant, and largely inexplicable — it's that the premise is wrong, that red-blue divide in the electorate.
The common perception, the hoary conventional wisdom, is that we as a people are now hopelessly polarized in our culture, our values, and our politics, and that the Center has shrunk to nothing. This is of course true in Washington.
You see what happened? It takes an understanding about Washington (that politics are hopelessly polarized), turns it into a conventional wisdom that is rarely-if-ever expressed, and then cites Washington as the example that proves the rule! (And the Washington example isn't even as strong as it suggests. Look at the emerging coalitions over surveillance. Different issues draw together different constituencies.)
But none of this represents the flaws in this study better than this passage right here.
To be sure that its findings were as far removed from the prevailing political interests as possible, the poll was designed and conducted in ecumenical fashion, by both the Benenson Strategy Group, President Obama's pollster, and Neil Newhouse of Public Opinion Strategies, who conducted the polls for Governor Romney.
That's it. That's why this exercise is flawed. Instead of understanding that polling is a statistically-driven tool that adheres to strict mathematical rules to present as accurate a picture of reality as possible, Esquire and NBC pretend that even polling adheres to its immature red-blue polarity. If even these two partisan outfits say there's a center, it must be true! Whereas any pollster whatsoever could have polled on any of these topics and delineated ways in which the broad electorate exhibits gradations of belief, overlapping with other groups in at-times surprising but often-predictable ways. Because there are more than eight kinds of voters, and everyone — including, to his glee, Michael Bloomberg — lies in some center somewhere.
"Everything we are told about politics in America today... is wrong." It actually says that. http://t.co/qL0vvln2Tz— Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) October 15, 2013
Picture: Jon Huntsman, centrist, and Madea, a man shoehorned into clothes and a political definition that don't fit well. (AP)