In search of a new center in the culture war
The true political center actually tilts somewhat to the right on social issues
The culture war divides Americans more deeply and more sharply than anything else. Read The New York Times or most other outlets of the mainstream media and you'll get the distinct impression that those on the conservative side of the conflict are ignorant bigots and quite possibly theocratic fascists. Read or listen to right-wing media, and you're likely to hear that those on the progressive side favor infanticide and are anti-religious fanatics just steps away from enacting an American version of Mao's murderous cultural revolution.
Thankfully, we have reason to think that most Americans are less polarized on these issues than the pronouncements of partisans and activists on each side would lead one to believe. We also have reason to suspect that public opinion on social issues and questions of national identity tilts somewhat to the right — and that this stance, when combined with a pragmatically progressive economic program, could well constitute a new American center.
That will sound outrageous to many. For much of the past four decades, the American center has been defined by its broadly libertarian outlook on both economic and social issues. To be a centrist Democrat, a centrist Republican, or a centrist independent has been to favor keeping taxes relatively low, regulations relatively minimal, international trade relatively free, and government services and benefits intact and in place while not expanding them very far into new areas. It has also meant supporting abortion rights and eventually gay marriage and transgender rights, and favoring, for both moral and economic reasons, high levels of immigration.
Yet a comprehensive survey of voters in the 2016 election has revealed that very few people actually support this combination of libertarian policies — and that lots of people favor the ideologically opposite position: relatively progressive on the economy and relatively conservative on social issues.
That is where the new center of American politics can be found.
Consider how this plays out on abortion. The pro-life movement wants the Supreme Court to strip reproductive rights out of the Constitution by overturning Roe v. Wade (1973) and Casey v. Planned Parenthood (1992). To accomplish this goal, the movement has been working to enact restrictions on the procedure, and on the clinics that perform it, in state legislatures around the country, hoping the court will eventually declare them permissible under the Constitution. If that happens, pro-lifers would then begin increasing their efforts to make it difficult or impossible for women to legally and safely terminate their pregnancies across wide swaths of the country.
In response to this push, pro-choice activists have been moving in the opposite direction, pushing legislatures in more liberal states to expand access to abortion, in some cases long past the viability of the fetus. That has created hypothetical scenarios in which a baby capable of surviving outside the womb could be terminated after birth.
Where does the national electorate come down on this stark conflict? A solid majority favors abortion rights, though the extent of that support varies greatly depending on how advanced the pregnancy is and the motives of the woman seeking the abortion. At one end of the spectrum, only 15 percent of the country wants to outlaw abortion during the first trimester even when the mother's life is on the line. At the other end, only 20 percent believes a late-term abortion should be allowed when the choice is based simply on the mother's desire not to have a child.
That's 15 percent of the public holding an absolute pro-life position and 20 percent expressing an absolute pro-choice view. The rest of the country — 63 percent — comes down somewhere in the middle. That's where the center lies.
Now consider rights for homosexuals and transgender people.
Sixty-seven percent of the public supports same-sex marriage; only 31 percent oppose it. Fifty-one percent think that new laws are required to combat discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people. (Forty-six percent come down on the other side.) And 53 percent oppose laws restricting bathroom use to a person's sex at birth, as opposed to their current gender identity. Only 39 percent favor such legal restrictions.
That would seem to point to a liberal consensus on these social issues. Yet reality is more complicated. For one thing, blacks and Hispanics, important members of the Democratic electoral coalition, tend to be somewhat more conservative than whites on these questions. For another, a substantial majority of the population — 70 percent — dislikes political correctness, the social expectation and pressure to affirm progressive moral views on these issues and denounce those who take a different position. This would seem to indicate a general toleration for different ways of life combined with hostility toward efforts at policing and potentially punishing people's dissenting moral convictions and religious beliefs.
We have reason to presume that a similarly complex dynamic is at work even on the most divisive cultural issue in the Trump era: immigration and “the national question.”
Polls show that Trump's hardline anti-immigration position is favored by around 40 percent of the country. Meanwhile, growing numbers, and a much larger portion of the population, think that immigration is a good thing for the country overall. But that disagreement doesn't get at what's most important — and most defensible — about Trump's position, which is his case for the moral and political legitimacy of borders as a precondition for national cohesion and solidarity.
Very few people on the left explicitly endorse open borders as a policy option. Yet elite opinion on the center-left and center-right over the past few decades has leaned in that direction, for both economic and moral reasons. The center-left finds the parochialism of national borders morally distasteful and views itself as working toward a cosmopolitan world in which people can move and travel anywhere they want at will. The center-right, meanwhile, takes an analogous view about the movement of goods and capital. Markets for products, services, and labor should be open, and so should supply chains, with globalism the watchword of the economy.
The law may not reflect this bipartisan elite consensus, but it has been the de facto reality in recent years, with profound consequences for immigration. Over the past few decades, millions of people have crossed the border illegally or overstayed their visas. Many have nevertheless found work and remained in the country. This has created the impression that the law in this area is irrelevant. In many cases, we didn't enforce it. Which means that we failed to exert control over the border — to make a determination of who is and who isn't an American.
On this one crucial matter, Trump is right: a nation is a political community, and every political community makes a distinction between insiders and outsiders. Social cohesion and solidarity — as well as the ambitious public policies they can make possible — depend on this distinction, and on it being respected, upheld, and enforced.
Where Trump goes wrong is in thinking that social cohesion and solidarity are compatible with the nation modeling itself on a closed tribe, clan, or armed camp. The United States has never been founded on exclusive claims of belonging. We are and have always been a nation of immigrants (and former slaves brought here against their will). We're a political community that has long specialized in turning outsiders into insiders — a process that presumes the reality and importance of that distinction, but also its mutability. It's one thing to think, as many conservatives do, that we no longer do as good of a job of it as we used to. It's quite another to suppose, as Trump and his strongest supporters sometimes seem to, that we need to build walls, pull up the drawbridge, and stop trying altogether.
Because American ideals, history, and present reality belie the Trumpian vision of a closed society, the president's immigration policies end up undermining national cohesion and solidarity — the very things they aim to advance. The cruelty of these policies and the ineptitude of their implementation sow division and provide the open-borders left with a boost they otherwise wouldn't enjoy. Both extremes must be resisted. Neither can have a place in an agenda for a new vital center.
But that doesn't mean national solidarity can have no place in it. On the contrary, such solidarity must serve as its foundation. Call it inclusive civic nationalism — a vision of the country as a bounded community of people sharing a common place in the world, a common history, a common struggle with democratic self-government, and a common effort to realize a set of ideals we recognize as noble. One of those ideals is the conviction that the democratic journey and experiment can be joined by anyone in the world, provided we decide politically to invite them in.
Should we invite them in? How many? From what countries, cultures, and classes? The new American center takes no position on those questions. It insists only that the decisions are ours alone to make, without apology.