After Obama was elected, one of the questions often asked was: Will he govern from the Left or from the Center?
His various appointments, notably the economists, Geithner and Summers, but also his choice of Clinton for State and his decision to keep Gates as Secretary of Defense, have suggested to many that Obama's political compass points closer to the Center than to the Left. Some commentators and economic analysts have even suggested that Obama is squarely “Center-Right.”
Whether any of this is good news or bad news depends on your own political views and expectations. Many Americans are relieved at what appears to be a centrist and pragmatic approach, though some conservatives are surprised and some progressives are both surprised and disappointed. My own view is that there is little about Obama's choices that should surprise anyone, unless they actually believed the bit about him being a Marxist (or were under the absurd impression that “change” entails appointing only individuals with absolutely no experience in government.) It should have been obvious that Obama is both a centrist and a pragmatist. He is also a liberal. These are not contradictions.
Part of the problem here is our media’s simplistic obsession with placing politicians along a linear left-right political axis. This sort of directional thinking, and the terms generated – right, left, conservative, liberal - is often misleading. At a minimum, it represents a very limited and superficial way of looking at politics. Some observations:
• The model of “Left” and “Right” that is used to describe political ideology presumes a single dimension. It imagines a single linear axis to account for political and economic philosophies, cultural values, theories about role of government, etc. This is deeply flawed. In reality there are multiple dimensions that influence any person’s political views.
• Why do we, as a nation, limit our political thinking to a single left-right axis? I think the most obvious reason is that we have a fairly rigid two party system. We think of our political system as two opposite poles with a line connecting them. The line reflects a sort of continuum and imagines that viewpoints necessarily lie somewhere between the poles. Psychology and Evolutionary Biology may also offer an explanation. Perhaps human beings are predisposed to categorize political ideas (like religious ideas) in a dualistic way: “Us” versus “Them.” “Good” versus “Evil.” “My Group” versus “the Other.”
• The error of this one dimensional left-right model is conflated when we use terms like “liberal” and “conservative” to locate us within the left-right political spectrum. For example, the opposite of liberal is not conservative. The opposite of liberal is illiberal.
• During the campaign, it was argued that Obama had the most liberal (left-leaning?) voting record in the Senate in 2007. The flaws in these kinds of rankings and arguments have been analyzed at length. For one thing, they purport to rank according to votes on legislation but they don’t tell you a thing about the candidate’s priorities. And when you scratch beneath the surface and look at the actual legislation, you can see additional problems inherent in these sort of rankings. For example, if you introduce legislation for better heath care for members of the Armed Forces and veterans, is that a liberal or conservative measure? If you support reform and seek greater transparency and accountability in government spending, is that a liberal or conservative measure?
• Globalization further shatters the traditional left-right single dimension approach to politics. Thomas Friedman offers the instructive example of India versus Indiana. The state of Indiana, in an effort to save tax payers $8 million, outsourced a contract (involving the processing of unemployment claims) to a firm in India. Curiously enough, this measure was supported by pro-labor Democrats and opposed by free-trade Republicans. So who are the liberals and who are the conservatives here? What is the “left” position and what is the “right” position?
The traditional paradigm simply doesn’t work. But at least we live in interesting times.