Steve Benen wants to open up some debate: “is this a ‘center-right’ nation? What’s the appropriate metric to even consider such a question?”
I think it’s easier to start with what’s not an appropriate metric, namely the public policy decisions made by elected and appointed officials of the United States government. This is where conventional analysis goes awry. On the one hand you have pundits inferring public views about policy matters from markers of ideological self-identification. On the other hand you have pundits trying to make arguments about voter self-identification based on policy views. But political behavior isn’t generally about policy. Most people don’t have opinions on most subjects, most people’s opinions aren’t especially coherent, and even for people who do have a lot of fairly coherent opinions it’s simply not possible to engage in political action based on more than a few of them.
The fact that many more Americans self-identify as conservative than as liberal doesn’t, I think, tell us anything about anything other than their self-identification. But this self-identification is still important. For a conservative politician “I’m a conservative, he’s the liberal” is a winning message in most jurisdictions whereas “I’m a liberal, he’s the conservative” generally isn’t. In California things are different, because the California electorate is more liberal than the national electorate (note that this fact has no impact on Californians’ irrational attachment to Proposition 13 — politics isn’t about policy). This gets Democrats tied up in endless rounds of self-defeating triangulation and internecine battles which, in turn, has real implications for what gets done policy-wise.
But one thing I would note about this is that even though the United States is different from other countries in many respects, almost every country seems to me to be a center-right nation. Look at the postwar political history of, say, France and you’ll find that the Socialist Party is spectacularly unsuccessful. I think you’ll find that the reason for this is that nationalism is a generally winning political strategy. So if you look at Canada, you find a country where the center-right has difficulty achieving political dominance because Anglophone and Francophone nationalists don’t cooperate well. The exception to this rule is Sweden, where from the Depression forward for about 55 years the Social Democrats successfully dominated with an unusual form of left-wing nationalism. But for the past 20 years or so, I’d say that’s dominance has down as immigration has made it a more diverse society.