Journalists have a special affection for The Center, a political zone free of ideology and dogma where sensible public policy can emerge. But the centrism celebrated by corporate media isn't actually the absence of an ideology–it's a political point of view like any other.
That doesn't do much to blunt Big Media's desire to celebrate The Middle as a place where Americans throw off what divides them and come together for a rational discussion of how to fix the country's problems.
What media don't tend to do is define The Center as "Things Most People Support," because letting people know that most Americans support raising taxes on the wealthy, cutting military spending or providing single-payer healthcare would make the elite political debate seem like it's well to the right of the public.
Enter the new NBC/Esquire poll, which purports to reveal the "New American Center." But there's not much new here, really–if you can manage to even comprehend what it is they're trying to say.
The survey asked a series of questions about a variety of political issues, and then broke down the respondents into eight categories:
two on the far right ("The Righteous Right" and "The Talk Radio Heads"), two on the far left ("The Bleeding Hearts" and "The Gospel Left"), and four in the middle that represent nothing less than a new American center ("Minivan Moderates," "The MBA Middle," "The Pick-up Populists" and "The #WhateverMan.")
So when NBC is talking about what the "center" is, they mean only those four last-mentioned categories. NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams (10/15/13) reported that the poll revealed a stark contrast with the government shutdown crisis:
Because of these clashing extremes in Washington right now, it is easy to believe the same political divide exists in cities and towns and neighborhoods all across our country and might just define our country and our politics these days.
This is off to a bad start already. The shutdown–in which a small segment of the Republican Party shut down the government in an effort to get a healthcare law defunded–had nothing to do with "clashing extremes." Reporter Chuck Todd continued in the same vein:
You've been conditioned to look at American politics in 2-D, blue and red, left and right. But that's not what you are. A new NBC News/Esquire survey finds we all could use a pair of 3-D glasses because there's a growing political center that doesn't comfortably fit into the forced political stereotypes of the past.
It's hard to imagine there are many people who look at politics as exclusively a battle between Republicans and Democrats–despite elite media outlets like NBC's efforts to feed that impression with how they structure political debates.
So what does the exciting new center believe? "The center is as diverse as the country," Todd tells viewers. Which isn't really true. As the survey write-up notes, it's overwhelmingly white (78 percent), and only 5 percent black.
But on some major policy issues, the views of the "center" would appear, based on those musty old political categories, to lean left. They want to raise taxes on the wealthy, support gun control, raise the minimum wage and legalize marijuana. The center, broadly speaking, supports reproductive rights and gay marriage, has a non-interventionist view of foreign policy, wants to cut military spending and supports a carbon tax on polluters.
That's not the say NBC's mostly-white center is entirely progressive. It is wary of immigration reform and affirmative action, supports the death penalty along with drilling for oil and gas, and takes a hawkish view of the federal budget.
But on balance, it seems to me that this center is well left of midway between the two major political parties; on some issues, it's arguably to the left of the Democratic Party. As Salon.com's Alex Parene put it (10/15/13) put it, NBC's center "is well to the left of the Washington consensus on specific economic issues."
That's not really the message you're likely to get from discussions of the poll. NBC Nightly News was careful to portray their center as being very balanced–they support gay marriage but oppose affirmative action, Todd explained, and while "52 percent are okay with legalizing marijuana….79 percent believe government is spending too much money."
That's true, according to the poll. But it seems more important to note that NBC's rather narrow, rather white "center" leans more to the left than the right. For all the talk about America as a center-right nation, this poll–with all its shortcomings–should send a message to journalists that the "middle" is further left than they usually portray it.