Cities without landmarks
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
“IT’S OFFICIAL,” the box on my screen announced in capital letters. “YOU’RE ONE OF THE BLEEDING HEARTS.”
To examine the Esquire/NBC News “New American Center” is to enter a Beltway consultants’ dreamscape, a perceptual interspace where real Americans’ opinions dissolve and are replaced by a chimerical creature whose secret language is only understood by certain insider politicians, corporations and consultants.
That creature’s name is “The Center.”
The survey commissioned by these two news organizations tells us very little about American public opinion. But it tells us a great deal about the insular worlds in which certain journalists and consultants reside.
Although there were some interesting nuggets of data in the study, overall it was an ill-conceived venture whose main purpose seemed to be reinforcing a prevailing article of faith inside the Beltway: that there is an undiscovered “center” to American politics, and that finding it will spell success for savvy corporations, candidates and consultants.
I tried to review the poll’s methodology with an open mind. But we’re not told how the study identified the “American Center,” and its architects at the Benenson Strategy Group failed to respond to requests for information.
That organization’s founder, Joel Benenson, became something of a polling legend when he defied the hackneyed pseudo-wisdom of his former mentor Mark Penn and helped guide Barack Obama to an upset victory over Penn’s client in the 2008 primaries. It’s unfortunate, then, that this particular study is packed with the kind of zingy and vacant language for which Penn became notorious. It labels Americans on a left/right axis of Bleeding Hearts, Gospel Left, Minivan Mods, MBA Middle, Pickup Populists, #whateverman, Righteous Right, and Talk Radio Heads.
By comparison, Penn’s “soccer mom” lingo seems almost profound.
Reviewing the raw data only added to the confusion. Why, for example, did many of the raw-data entries list the leftmost category as “Young Libs” rather than “Bleeding Hearts”? We don’t know—and they’re not saying.
The Unhidden Persuaders
Esquire and NBC News don’t report this study so much as hype it. Disturbingly, these journalists use the same marketing language employed by the consultants who wrote the report. Esquire tells its readers that the “New American Center” is “passionate, persuadable, and very real.” NBC News informs visitors to its website that “the center is real, passionate and persuadable.” (The NBC News piece carries the byline of a “senior staff writer.” The Esquire piece is credited to “The Editors.”)
Meanwhile, over at the Benenson Strategy Group website, project leader Daniel Franklin is quoted as saying that “the Center is dynamic and persuadable”—there’s that word again—“creating an opportunity for politicians and businesses alike to reevaluate how they communicate and connect with the American public.” That sounds like a pitch for corporate clients. Benenson’s past and present clients include Toyota, major drug companies, Shell Oil, and Verizon.
Esquire, in particular, crosses the line into naked huckstering for both this survey and centrist ideology. All the “centrist” buzzwords and catchphrases are there: We’re told we must get past the “meaningless labels,” transcend our obsolete “culture war,” conquer the “extreme partisanship of Washington” (no particular party’s held responsible for that), and reconnect with “the actual national mood and values.”
The editors sneer at what they call the “hoary conventional wisdom” that “we as a people are now hopelessly polarized in our culture, our values, and our politics”—an odd stance when promoting a study which slices the public into separate (and rather clichéd) social divisions.
That, too, comes straight from the corporate-centrism playbook: before idealizing your mythical “center,” you must first compartmentalize and trivialize people of both the left and the right. Esquire even offers a “Warren/Cruz scale,” as if popular Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whose opinions on banking regulation and economic justice poll well with the general public, were somehow comparable to the far-right senator from Texas whose government shutdown crusade has caused a disastrous plunge in his party’s popularity. That isn’t social science or journalism, it’s propaganda.
The sense of marketing hype and political spin is only heightened by the fact we’re told that the Center is allegedly “persuadable,” but is also a majority. That’s right: we’re told that the “New American Center” constitutes 51% of the electorate. That sounds like a corporate-funded centrist’s dream—and a consultant’s meal ticket.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
Sometimes the trick is in what you don’t ask.
We’re told that “a majority of those in the center agree with a mix of Republican and Democratic ideas.” But this survey’s respondents were only asked about Republican and Democratic ideas. Pollsters excluded a number of popular, nonpartisan ideas not yet embraced by either party.
A case in point: a recent poll from Lake Research reaffirmed numerous previous studies which found that a vast majority of Americans oppose cuts to Social Security and Medicare. The numbers were overwhelming: 82% of Republicans. 83% of Democrats. 78% of independents. Another survey by the National Academy of Social Insurance found that strong majorities of Americans, across the political spectrum want Social Security benefits increased, and would accept an increase in payroll taxes for themselves as well as the wealthy to pay for it.
But that idea isn’t supported by “centrist” leaders in either party right now, perhaps because it might require higher rates of taxation for the wealthy. Its absence from the public debate is a rebuke to our democratic process, and a sign of big-money corruption.
In short, there’s no basis for claiming that voters want the kind of “Republican/Democratic” hybrid the survey is pushing. The survey attempts to spin dissatisfaction with both parties into a yearning for a hybrid of both parties. Beltway insiders have made that leap of faith before, to disastrous effect. Republican Senator Alan Simpson and Democratic hedge funder Erskine Bowles were paired up to pitch budget cuts to the American people. But their proposal only won the support of a whopping 6% of the electorate when it was introduced. Other such “ecumenical” attempts met with similar failure.
The absence of entitlement questions is especially surprising consideringEsquire’s long record of concern-trolling on the subject. First there was its hokey “Esquire Deficit Commission,” which the magazine put together under centrist MSNBC Democrat Lawrence O’Donnell. Then there was the magazine’s widely discredited claim to have discovered “the real war on American youth.” (We reviewed both here.)
Esquire’s long-standing intergenerational hostility was evident in 2007, when consultant Heather Smith wrote in the magazine about her experience getting out the youth vote. Smith wrote that young voters “want to see campaigns and politicians or government address … jobs and the economy, health care, affording college, economic issues —things that Washington thinks of as the concerns of the middle-aged middle class.”
That’s a useful insight into the interests and goals which Americans share across the generations. But this was the subheading chosen by Esquire’s editors: “Stop pandering to the geezers and stop ignoring young voters.”
Yet, for all its expressed concern about rapacious geezers, Esquire didn’t request a single question about Social Security. Maybe that’s because Esquirealready knows what it thinks.
And maybe that’s why Esquire, in particular, went so far over the top in pushing style “centrism”—a push which begins with the editors’ first sentence and its sneering reference to Jim Hightower as “the legendary hellion populist out of Texas,” adding, in parentheses, “yes, such a beast once roamed the earth.”
In fact, the economic populism represented by Hightower (who is very much alive) can be partially found in a cohort the Esquire study labels “Pickup Populists.” But it’s de rigueur when giving a “centrist” pitch to contemptuously dismiss all that might be considered “left.”
Esquire’s editors overhyped the study, too, making claims even the consultants don’t dare to assert. They even claim that studying their conception of the “Center” provide previously unseen insights about public opinion, adding that this is “precisely what we mean when we talk about the Center: what most Americans actually believe.”
What most Americans actually believe.
That’s quite a claim. And it’s presumably purely coincidental that this undiscovered majority is so sympathetic to the Esquireagenda.
Both Sides Now
The false ideology of Beltway-insiderism can also be found in this Esquireparagraph:
“To be sure that its findings were as far removed from the prevailing political interests as possible, the poll was designed and conducted in ecumenical fashion, by both the Benenson Strategy Group, President Obama’s pollster, and Neil Newhouse of Public Opinion Strategies, who conducted the polls for Governor Romney.”
The impartial observer might be more likely to conclude that hiring not one, but two pollsters for mainstream political candidates might be a way to ensure that its findings reflected “the prevailing political interests.”
But that’s corporate-centrist ideology in a nutshell: One politician is a partisan. Two politicians are the American people incarnate.
Neil Newhouse, the Romney pollster who seems to have been something of a silent partner in this enterprise, became known for two things during the 2012 election. He insisted that the Romney campaign “would not be dictated by fact-checkers” after it was criticized for deceptive advertising. He also insisted that Romney would win.
Newhouse is a top Republican consultant. Benenson has been described by GQ as is one of “the fifty most powerful people in DC,” a fact his company websiteproudly proclaims, alongside a similar accolade—if that’s the right word—from Newsweek. So this piece may merely reflect the biases of longtime insiders. The Benenson Group has done excellent work in the past. We certainly hope this doesn’t reflect its acquisitionby a multinational named WPP, whose websitesays that “WPP companies exist to help their clients compete successfully: in marketing strategy, advertising, every form of marketing communication and in monitoring progress.”
After all, polling is not advertising or “marketing communication.”
The raw data don’t easily lend themselves to this centrist interpretation. There’s no space here to go through all the issues, so let’s take just one: government regulation. Most Americans are ambivalent about it. The conservative American Enterprise Institute think-tank captured that ambivalence effectively in its 2011reviewof public opinion on the subject.
The Pew Research Center found in 2012 that most Americans (63%) agree with the statement that “a free-market economy needs government regulation in order to best serve the public interest,” a figure that was essentially unchanged from its 62% level in 2009. But Pew also found that solid majorities believe thatgovernment regulation of business“usually does more harm than good” (a finding we would argue is the result of decades’ worth of marketing).
The Esquire/NBC News poll shows that 42% of respondents said they agreed with the statement that “financial reform should only be used to curb abuses, and shouldn’t interfere with banks’ and investors’ ability to make profits.”
That’s a slanted question. A “yes” does not necessarily mean Americans think the government is doing too much regulation, although there are times when Americans do think that. The operative word is still “ambivalence.” But Esquire’s editors nevertheless state unequivocally that the “Center wants the Federal government…to go easy on regulation.”
Other phraseology is equally dicey. Esquiretells us, for example, that “the Center believes that the government should help only those who really need help.” What does that even mean? Who supports helping people who don’t need help? It’s like the old Henny Youngman joke about the Boy Scout who helped old ladies across the street “whether they wanted to cross the street or not.”
Even a “bleeding heart” like me wouldn’t go for that.
The Center and I
Which brings us back to my experience with the online test. Was I reallyon the leftmost periphery of American public opinion. And “un-persuadable” not worthy of attention? I have no problem being on the leftist vanguard, but in this case it seemed hard to believe. After all, those Lake Research findings showed that 82% of Republicans agreed with me on Social Security, just one of many policy areas in which my own economic views seem to reflect the mainstream. Others include taxing the wealthy, doing more to fight poverty, repairing our crumbling infrastructure, taxing corporations at a higher rate, and having the government do more to create jobs.
We don’t seem that different, the Center and I. “The Center doesn’t think of itself as the ‘center,’” we’re told. Same here.
“The Center doesn’t much like how things are going,” say the editors at Esquire. Well, I’m not too thrilled either.
The chimerical “Center” and I would both like to see guns brought under control, and neither of us is thrilled about the role religious institutions are playing in politics. When it comes to the right to choose, the right to choose partners, or the right to burn one down at the end of a hard work day, we pretty much feel the same way: it’s none of our business.
More credible polls suggest that a new economic consensus is forming in this country, one that isn’t very accommodating toward the ideology reflected in this survey. But this new “center” has been divided by social issues. It has been excluded from political decision-making by a Beltway worldview that ignores their needs and their preferences. It’s been stymied by the kind of clichéd thinking which slices up the American people into demographic groups like “Bleeding Hearts” or “Pickup Populists.”
There are nuggets of good data here. It’s helpful to be reminded that Americans are increasingly pessimistic about the future, although that’s not a new finding. It was interesting to see confirmation of a growing populism in the white working-class, and to be reminded that it has stayed aloof from Democrats over social issues. That’s not new information either, but it’s useful for activists and politicians.
It’s time to stop searching for a nonexistent center and start reflecting the needs of a very real majority instead. That majority is inadequately represented in Washington, which is a failure of our democracy. Rather than spin or justify that failure, it’s time for even the most insider-ish analysts and journalists to report the unvarnished truth. Even their clients will eventually thank them for it.
In the words of Esquire’s editors, journalists and advisors “better be substantive” and “leave their hobbyhorses at home.” Sorry to say, this study fails on both counts.
If a “bleeding heart” won’t tell you, who will?
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia
Mount Rushmore, South Dakota, U.S.
Eiffel Tower, Paris, France
Colosseum, Rome, Italy
Taj Mahal, Agra, India
Siena Cathedral, Siena, Italy
Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Arc de Triomphe, Paris, France
Lost City of Petra, Jordan
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