Thomas Frank on The Magic Middle

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country we bring you the unmissable quotes from political conversations on WNYC. On today's Brian Lehrer Show, Thomas Frank, columnist for Harper's Magazine and author of The Wrecking Crew and What's the Matter with Kansas, says the success of the Tea Party shows that going after the "magic middle" of the American electorate is a mistake.

Where is the "center" in American politics? Not where you think, according to Thomas Frank.

Politicians are always trying to win over the median voter, which is itself a theoretical abstraction that describes people who fall between the extremes of the left and the right. Of course, that encompasses most Americans, so politicians rightfully cater to this center.

However, Frank says that for all the effort politicians spend on winning the "magic middle," the government as a whole hasn’t been striking a true balance between left and right.

In historical terms, the political system of the country has been moving to the right for over 30 years, and it keeps moving to the right even though there is no corresponding movement to the right among voters. The median voter is not moving to the right, but the politics are.

One explanation for this is money. Growing income inequality and an increasing concentration of wealth at the top tax bracket has meant that the wealthiest Americans have had an unprecedented largess to spend on campaigns, lobbying, and other political operations. Generally, Frank says, these donors support conservative fiscal policies regardless of whether they’re backing Democratic or Republican candidates.

I would say that those people have probably pushed the Democrats to the right. In fact there’s no question about it. One of the reasons Democrats weren’t able to come up with a proper re-regulation of Wall Street, the sort of things that really needed to happen after the collapse in 2008, is that’s who funds their campaigns.

Frank argues that interests supporting conservative policies are better represented in Washington. The average voter only flexes his or her muscle once every two years at the polls, but lobbyists have a dedicated street in DC. Therefore, the government moves right while the population stays put.

What has changed for the average voter is how each party is trying to mobilize them. Frank says that the left and the right have traded vote-getting strategies since the 1960s.

The right is very comfortable with the idea of populist discontent…That’s what the left used to do in this country. You look at what’s happened the last two years in this country. There are hordes of angry discontented people, and what is the liberal response? We know what the conservative response is, but what’s the liberal response?

It's certainly not discontent anymore. According to Frank, liberals in recent years have donned the less seductive mantle of reason.

That’s the quintessentially liberal response. Think of Al Gore’s last book, The Assault on Reason. It’s always about reason, reasonableness, professionalism. The Democratic Party understands itself as a coming together of different professional groups, a rally of the reasonable. This is why Obama was so massively popular. His reasonableness is overwhelming.

Most of Obama's popularity has since worn off. At the end of the interview, Frank was asked about a survey that showed that 35 percent of Americans identify as conservative while only 20 percent identify as liberal. That would mean that the median voter has in fact moved to the right along with the government, contradicting his earlier claim.

Perhaps the "center" just looks different to Democrats? Frank doesn't think so. He said that these statistics reflect perceptions of terminology, not policy. 

The word liberal itself has been poisoned. Nobody wants to self-identify as that, but people still believe in the New Deal. They still expect to get their social security check, people like Medicare. Remember “get your government hands off my Medicare?” Is that person liberal or conservative? People do not know, and they don’t want to use those terms.

Ultimately, Frank was adamant that the "center" of Washington and the actual "center" of the electorate are two very different things, and we'd do well to remember that.

When people talk about centrism in that respect, what they’re talking about is consensus, the DC consensus…It has nothing to do with the center point of public opinion. It has nothing to do with public opinion period.