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Americans Move Left; NYT Misses It

By Jeff Cohen
July 28, 2008


The headline atop Saturday’s op-ed page was a hallowed standby for the New York Times: “Americans Move to the Middle.”

Assembled by Times “visual columnist” Charles Blow, the text of the column was dwarfed by 15 graphs tracking recent movement in American public opinion, based on Gallup polls. There was one problem: the headline totally distorted the data.

An accurate headline would have been “American Opinion Moves Leftward” – but accuracy was apparently trumped by centrist ideology. (Yes, there are ideologues of the center, as well as of Left or Right.)

It’s a cherished myth of many in establishment punditry that most Americans perpetually and happily find their way to the safe center of American politics.

This pleasant status quo consensus is marred, in Blow’s text, by “party extremists sharpening their wedge issues” to rally their bases and caricature their opponents.

Here’s the data presented by Blow and the Times: 15 public opinion graphs on various issues starting in 2001-2003 and ending in 2006-2008.

Of the 15, about a dozen track issues on which there are recognizable positions associated with Right and Left. Of those dozen, the trend in opinion is unmistakenly leftward on virtually every one.

On foreign policy:

-- “The Iraq war has made the U.S. less safe from terrorism.” 37% in 2003 and 49% four years later.

-- “The U.S. should not attack another country unless it has been attacked first.” 51% in October 2002 and 57% in 2006.

-- “The government is spending too much for national defense and military purposes.” 19% in February 2001 and 44% in February 2008.

On cultural issues:

-- “Organized religion should have less influence in this nation.”  22% in January 2001 and 34% in January 2008.

Asked if the following were “morally acceptable,” trend lines were leftward. “Gay relationships”: 40% in May 2001 to 48% in May 2008. “Divorce”: 59% to 70% in same time period. “Medical research using stem cells from human embryos”: from 52% in May 2002 to 62% in May 2008. 

Some might argue that there is one Times graph that trends rightward: “The state of moral values in the country as a whole is getting worse.” It went from 67% in May 2002 to 81% in May 2008.

Yet I’m no conservative and I’m absolutely part of the 81% -- given the declining morals that descend from corporate, government and religious elites.

So the Times presents Gallup data showing a clear trend toward the left, and calls it a “Move to the Middle.”

Is the assumption that we were mostly rightwingers a few years ago? Or is the “move to the middle” line simply more reassuring to an establishment newspaper?

The reality is that long-term trends in American opinion are generally leftward on issues, as documented in well-researched studies.

It’s a reality that troubles those Beltway pundits who constantly goad Barack Obama toward “the center” on issues like Iraq and NAFTA – when they mean, move away from the center of mass opinion and upwards toward the center of elite opinion.

A demagogue like Sean Hannity instinctively knows this reality, which is why his attacks on Obama emphasize WrightAyresBitterMichelle more than issues.

Jeff Cohen is the director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. In 1986, he founded the progressive media watch group FAIR.

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