Thomas Frank on The Magic Middle

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The View From The 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.



More in:

Comments [25]

Gaetano Catelli from Oxford, Mississippi

judging by this thread, it appears to me that WNYC listeners are overwhelmingly to be found near the center of the political spectrum.

i guess that's a reflection of the fact that WNYC is itself so fair and balanced.

Dec. 15 2010 12:47 AM

I have had the same experience as commentator Peg. My friends and relatives find it impolite to talk about issues.

Dec. 14 2010 12:08 PM
trish2 from NY

I think it significant what the major media chooses to cover. I remember very clearly how much of the Tea Party activities were covered. How would we know about other uprisings if the media did not cover them? The media has enormous power to select the agenda. What will they choose to show the people? These corporations have a conflict of interest in that they are always calculating how to increase their profits. Be it in advertising income from drug companies or in favorable legislative policies. Think about these things.

Dec. 14 2010 12:07 PM

I am the greatest fan of Brian Lehrer and his show. However this morning I was frustrated with the interview with Thomas Frank. Brian kept challenging him before he could get a full thought out. I would have liked for him to have had a better chance to explain his thesis.

Dec. 14 2010 12:03 PM
Robert from NYC

Then let's get the poison out of LIBERAL. That's the problem they all ran away from the "label". I don't see that for CONSERVATIVE!!

Dec. 14 2010 11:35 AM
Yourgo from astoria

Wrecking Crew is an incredible book.

We are forfetting that the Tea Party is funded by thr rich and thats why they are so well organized. Also the rich invest money into these 'grass roots' movements because they influence policy that keeps them richer. such as not repealing the bush tax cuts.

Dec. 14 2010 11:34 AM
Amy from Manhattan

I think the 2 uses of "reason" aren't the same. "In Defense of Reason" is about reasoning, not reasonableness.

And the "Million Moderates March" was about moderation in the sense of civility rather than centrism.

Dec. 14 2010 11:33 AM
j from bklyn

i don't understand the disconnect the tea party has between their supposed 'outrage' and "freedom".

that they don't understand that deregulation doesn't equal freedom, but that's who they end up voting for every time.
how is it that tea partiers never put the inability of the repubs to 'let failure fail' actually happen b/c of how campaigns actually work especially since the citizen's united decision.

Dec. 14 2010 11:33 AM
Sophia from Yonkers, NY

People are afraid to mention "Class warfare" ; the rich right has made the mention of the term almost a terrorist threat.
The fact is there is class warfare and the rich right are stamping the poor and middle class into the ground. The poor and middle class can barely afford to get out and vote let alone volunteer politically or contribute to campaigns.

Dec. 14 2010 11:33 AM
Natalie Burrows from Brooklyn, NY

Thank you, Thomas Frank! I have been thinking about this issue for the past several days. It seems to me the "magic middle" concept comes from the media, reporting on how Congresspeople vote, deriving their opinions from their richest supporters. This does not reflect what most Americans think, unless they are unduly affected by what they hear from the media - a real possibility.
There is, however, no meaningful middle. Imagine two scientists coming to two entirely different conclusions on a scientific issue -- and trying to resolve it via compromise! Absolutely ridiculous, isn't it? Same is true with many political issues. There are only viable solutions to problems. Middle ground, as in the tax bill conflict, does not make our country either fair or solvent. Compromise in this case, as in so many others, does nothing to solve the basic problem, in fact, it only makes it worse.

Dec. 14 2010 11:32 AM
Glenda F. from Portsmouth

The proof is in pudding, kids. Your local battles and unsung heroes are for naught if you lose your congressional majority.

Dec. 14 2010 11:31 AM

"Let the free market dictate." 2005
"Banks are too big to fail." 2008

Don't flatter yourself. The billionaires are not "conspiring" against you.

They are refurnishing their yachts. If they think of "us" it is in their occasional smirk at how easy everything is.

Dec. 14 2010 11:30 AM

One of the reasons that Dems do not protest is because so many are on antidepressants. They cannot handle impolite arguments, so they just tune out the vitriol - I guess hoping that someone else will do the arguing for them. I have not encountered one Democratic middle class household who will allow ANY political discussion in their home - Lest someone get upset.

Dec. 14 2010 11:29 AM

The Republicans cut education spending for generations and now there's enough people who are dumb enough to vote against their best interests.

Dec. 14 2010 11:28 AM
K from Brooklyn

Quick point re: the left not coming out. For years, there were MASSIVE anti-war protests that barely registered on the radar of the news media. NYT, AP, WashPost, all the networks and cable nets. Nothing. Contrast that to the tea party protests, which got A TON of coverage, and whose importance early on was inflated by a major cable news network.

Dec. 14 2010 11:27 AM
Larra from the south south bronx!

Whatever happened to the dialogue-centric, 'moderate' answer to tea drinkers, the coffee party? did I imagine that?

Dec. 14 2010 11:24 AM
Peter from New York, NY

We need to remember that many more who benefit from rightwing policies are more able to participate in the political system than many on the left. For example, higher wage earners generally can get out of work to vote on election day whereas many low wage workers cannot or are afraid to ask for fear of losing their jobs. Not having a national holiday on election day is therefore arguably an instrument of class domination. The right has also become extremely sophisticated with propaganda and can often influence people who would benefit from left wing policies to vote against their interests.

Dec. 14 2010 11:22 AM

Good question: I think the reason why the Tea Party shows up whereas its leftist counterpart didn't is because they (the counterpart) was too busy fighting at home: to keep a job, to keep a home, to unite their community, etc.

Not all the battles are large scale, and none of the small battles get media coverage.

Dec. 14 2010 11:21 AM
Ed from Brooklyn

We didn't "show up" because we are working and trying to keep things together.

Oh, and we don't have a 24/7 cable "news" network cheerleading us or inflating our importance.

Really Brian, can't you do better?

Dec. 14 2010 11:21 AM
rlewis from the Bowery

moderate: raise the retirment age by 1 year for anyone under 21 and 1 more year for anyone not yet born.

moderate: restore funding for abortion, but ban late-term procedures.

moderate: make civil unions the govt's domain and marriages belong to the church. govt gives civil unions to anyone and churches marry whoever they want.

moderate: make all healthcare insurance not-for-profit without any single-payer crap.

moderate: if your state's total population is less than that of the US's largest city, then your state only gets 1 senator.

moderate: tie changes in minimum wage to inflation, so that the hourly wage goes up or down with everything else.

moderate: any product-maker company is responsible for collecting and desposing of the packaging after the consumer begins use of the product.

...just a start.

Dec. 14 2010 11:21 AM
Susan from nyc

The current system breeds distrust and contempt, as our purported representatives ignore their constituents in favor of their paymasters, obscuring their bought-and-paid-for favors with endless, incomprehensible layers of taxes and deductions. Representative government can only function if those in office actually represent those who elected them rather than those with deep pockets.

Dec. 14 2010 11:20 AM

I love this guy! As a recovering Dem operative, I am so disturbed by the grab for the supposed middle. We, as a society, only see 2 points of views because we have a 2 party system. Dems have been moving to the right for years, ie., DLC. That is why people, even me, were excited about Obama being a straight up, old-school Dem. The Fox-ification of America has resulted in the dumbing down of our society and politics, and people voting against their own interest. This is not the middle.

Dec. 14 2010 11:20 AM

Thank you Mr. Frank for confirming what I've been emailing DC about for the past 22 months.

Thanks for taking on the whole RW myths of a functioning "free market" & the median voter.

Even Tom on On Point keeps wrongly reporting the DC "common wisdom."

Dec. 14 2010 11:15 AM

[[Comments [1]

Roger from Astoria, NY
I'm interested in knowing what exactly being a moderate even means in a country this conservative.

Dec. 14 2010 11:10 AM]]

"Moderate" means "open to dialogue or debate." It means "not an ideologue."

Dec. 14 2010 11:14 AM
Roger from Astoria, NY

I'm interested in knowing what exactly being a moderate even means in a country this conservative.

Dec. 14 2010 11:10 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.


About It's A Free Country ®

Archive of It's A Free Country articles and posts. Visit the It's A Free Country Home Page for lots more.

Supported by

WNYC is supported by the Charles H. Revson Foundation: Because a great city needs an informed and engaged public.  Learn more at


Supported by