America is “right of center”

"McCain sees right-of-center nation as he moves against Obama" is the headline of an AP story, flagged by the Drudge Report, that begins:

WASHINGTON (AP) – Republican John McCain’s game plan for beating Democrat Barack Obama rests on one huge assumption: Despite an unpopular war, an uncertain economy and the GOP’s beleaguered status, the country still leans more to the right than to the left.

How can this be? The political center in the United States is, by definition, the point at which half the population lies to the left and half the population lies to the right. So how can the nation as a whole lean toward one side or another?

I think the reason this cliche endures is that "the left" commonly refers to the points of view that could be ascribed to the more liberal half of the country in the 1960s: more government spending, mandatory school busing to integrate schools, more regulation of monopolies such as the phone company and post office rather than more competition in those fields, huge public housing projects and other kinds of "urban renewal", income tax rates as high as 90 percent, etc. Almost no one clings to those ideas in the 21st century, so if they constitute "the left," then America certainly isn’t a left-leaning nation today.

But the "America leans right" cliche seems to pit the 1960s left against the 2008 right. Though even liberal Democrats now agree that the free market system brings better service and more choice when it comes to phone service, this idea is considered "right of center." Same thing with the notion that there are better ways to increase affordable housing than by erecting huge public complexes; any idea to use the marketplace rather than direct government intervention is "right of center."

At the same time, I think that the right has been able to sever itself from the 1960s version of conservatism. So support for laws guaranteeing equal rights for African-Americans and for women is no longer a "left of center" view, though it surely was 40 years ago. Government regulation to reduce pollution was definitely "left of center" in the 1960s but the popularity of that idea is not cited as proof that America leans to the left today.

Once-popular ideas on both sides of the political spectrum have fallen out of fashion, and the definition of "left" and "right" is constantly changing. One can argue that America has shifted to the right over time, but it’s logically impossible for the country to "lean right." The center is the center.