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The Political 'Center' Has Moved, But The Media's Definition of It Hasn't; That Cost Democrats In 2020

February 8, 2021

By Joe Rothstein

Last November the voters rejected Donald Trump. But they didn’t reject the Republican Party. In fact, Republicans had a much better election outcome than they had any reason to expect. They held onto a half dozen Senate seats that pre-election polls indicated they might lose. They came within a few seats of winning back control of the House, even though most forecasters expected them to lose seats. And they won 250 seats in state legislatures that will help them draw favorable congressional boundaries based on the 2020 census.

Not only was all this unexpected, it was mostly unearned. They had abetted Trump in his corruption and illegalities. They had given a huge tax cut to the rich and powerful. They had gutted environmental, consumer and human rights protections. And, worst of all, they failed to adequately protect Americans from a pandemic that already had claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

So why did voters not only give Republicans a pass, but increase their numbers?

Post-election analysis leans strongly to the view that many voters who rejected Trump bought into the message that if Joe Biden was elected president, Republican congressional majorities would be needed to restrain “radical, leftist, socialistic" Democrats from enacting a dangerous agenda. And why did this message prove so powerful? Because it was authenticated by the media.

How often did you read or hear that Joe Biden was a “centrist” but would be pulled “left” by the “radicals” in his party? The media—and I’m talking here about the NY Times, Washington Post, NPR, CNN and other usually reliable arbiters of fact and fiction—reinforced this construction, contributing to its wide acceptance by November’s voters.

But it’s not true. Biden may fairly be considered a political centrist, but the center isn’t where the media portray it to be. Not if a reasonable definition of the political center is the majority view of public policy issues.

Republicans relentlessly promoted the “radical, leftist, socialistic” label in public appearances and advertising. Usually, that meant “green new deal,” “medicare for all,” “confiscation of guns.” Supposedly scary results of Democratic Party control. Buying into this strategy, the media accepted as valid the notion that the far left of the Democratic party had taken control of the agenda and would push for extreme policies, well out of the political mainstream.

Yet, virtually all polling leading up to the election showed that while the words “green new deal,” were indeed scary to many voters, the actual programs behind the label are widely supported. In a pre-election Pew poll 80% registered support for solar, 71% for wind, and only 45% for coal. Tesla was one of the highest-flying stocks of the year. GM was moving toward a 2035 phase out of all internal combustion engines. The public now clearly accepts the danger of global warming and has bought into most of the changes needed to fight climate warming.

“Green new deal,” may sound problematic when compressed to those three words, but it sounds like the future when the program is explained.

Medicare for all? In April, 2020, a Hill-Harris poll found 69% for it, consistent with support from the firm’s poll in 2019. That was well before campaign messaging peaked and plenty of time for the media to accept the fact that it was not a radical, far left political position. Health care is a difficult issue to poll, since it has so many variables. But it’s clear that the public is virtually unanimous in wanting the government involved. Only 11% of Republicans believe the government should have no role in health care insurance and delivery.

On questions of equality, 59% told Pew they believe changes are needed to better protect Blacks, 62% to protect immigrants, and 56% to help women. Among political independents, those numbers are 57%, 66% and 54%.

Gun control? A 2019 Pew poll found that 57% of Americans favor stricter gun laws and 61% would completely ban the sale of assault rifles.

Same sex marriage? Legalizing marijuana? Americans now approve of both by 2-1 margins.

There are many ways to define the “political center,” but if it’s reasonable to consider the center to be where the majority of Americans live, that’s where Democratic party politics are. And what would define radical? Positions where few Americans want to go. Polls tell us Americans don’t want to make abortion illegal, or give tax breaks to the rich, or reverse 230 years of welcoming immigrants, or stop trading goods and services with other nations.

The ”center” isn’t static. It moves with social and technological change. In a 2002 Pew poll only 30% expressed support for policies that combat global warming. Public acceptance of same sex marriage and legalized marijuana has moved even more dramatically. We’re in a far different place on policies for social justice than we were in the 1990s when Congress enacted mandatory three-strikes-and-you’re-in-jail-for-life legislation.

Issue by issue, the media may recognize changes, but when it comes to sorting policy into 30-second TV spot political boxes such as left-right-center, the media is having a hard time keeping up. That likely cost the Democrats a number of elections they should have won in 2020.

Let’s hope that after a year or so of the Biden White House and Democratic control of Congress and how they address the public’s to-do list, the media will change its orientation on how to define the 'center.' That will have much to do with voter outlook when people go to the polls in 2022.

(Joe Rothstein can be contacted at jrothstein@rothstein.net. Rothstein is author of the acclaimed political thrillers, “The Latina President and the Conspiracy to Destroy Her,” and “The Salvation Project.”)



Joe Rothstein is editor of U.S. Politics Today. His career in politics spans 35 years, as a strategist and media producer in more than 200 campaigns for political office and for many political causes. He was a pioneer in professional political consulting and one of the founding members of the American Association of Political Consultants. During his career Mr. Rothstein has served as editor of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Anchorage Daily News and adjunct professor at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. He has a master's degree in journalism from UCLA.