Many in the Punditocracy are proclaiming that the U.S. is a center-right country. While it’s pretty obvious that they’re saying this to justify their feeble pronouncements, that’s not what really bugs me about this center-right hooey.
That statement is based on the observation that the majority of voters describe themselves as either moderate or conservative. But this is a stupid way of looking at this result because it presumes that the terms liberal, moderate, and conservative have accepted, standard meanings. That presumption should be called into doubt in any country where a significant fraction of the country actually believes–incorrectly–that a centrist Democrat is a socialist.
Snark aside, there is a way to determine what these political labels actually mean. There are many polls that ask both political leaning (e.g., are you a liberal, moderate, or conservative) and views on issues. Several different statistical techniques can be used to determine what answers a liberal (or moderate, etc.) should have on average–think of it as determining the liberal moyen. Once this is done, we can then classify respondents into these groups based on their opinions, and not on self-assigned labels (and, of course, some people won’t be able to be classified with any degree of confidence). We could even use subsets of questions–that is, ask if someone is a social conservative versus a social moderate, and so on.
For some reason, this is never done. Somewhere, there must be a professional pollster who knows what discriminant analysis is (or any other number of techniques). It would yield very useful information that would probably knock the pundits flat on their asses. My prediction is that economically we’re center-left, with an emphasis on left; socially, straight down the middle with a large variance; in foreign, policy, probably center to center-right. But until someone does the proper analysis, we’ll never know.