Esquire magazine just confirmed what I've long suspected: The only people who see the world entirely through liberal or conservative lenses are those who've been elected to Congress, have a microphone in front of them, or rely on either of the aforementioned for their news and information.
For the vast majority of the rest of us, the issues are a mixed bag, and although our opinions are often drowned out by the voices of vitriol, we hold the real political power in the country. The question remains whether we will use the strength of our numbers to stop the sort of adolescent acrimony that nearly caused a default on our obligations.
Anecdotally, this has always been my experience. If I'm pumping gas at the Shell in Gladwyne, eating breakfast at Fred's in New Hope, or picking up the kids at school in Newtown Square, those who engage me in political conversation rarely line up in the sort of faux partisan/ideological boxes that are customary in cable television news or terrestrial talk radio. Instead, they are often fiscally conservative, socially liberal, and not afraid to say there are many issues they just haven't figured out. And now Esquire confirms that my experience is not something unique to the Philadelphia suburbs, which are nationally recognized as a national bellwether. Most of the country is just like us.
Esquire's analysis was as nonpartisan as it gets, relying on Barack Obama's pollster (Benenson Strategy Group) and Mitt Romney's pollster (Neil Newhouse of Public Opinion Strategies), in conjunction with NBC News. It concludes that 51 percent of Americans fall somewhere in the center - far more than the left or the right - or the left and right combined.
Even Esquire senior editor Richard Dorment was taken aback.
"We always have this inkling suspicion that the center, as it's been typically defined by conventional wisdom, which was . . . this 5 to 7 percent nugget of undecided voters that were neither decidedly red or decidedly blue, we always sort of thought it was going to be bigger than that," he told me last week.
"We never knew it was going to constitute 51 percent, a majority of the country that does not belong to either of the fringes and has its own set of values and beliefs that clearly demarcate it from the extremes."
After culling the data, Esquire's pollsters divided the country into eight segments: two on the far right - the "Righteous Right" (14 percent) and the "Talk Radio Heads" (14 percent); two on the far left - the "Bleeding Hearts" (10 percent) and the "Gospel Left" (11 percent); and four in the middle - "Minivan Moderates" (14), the "MBA Middle" (13), "Pickup Populists" (12), and "Whatevermans" (13).
In the 10-minute survey, I was asked how attentively I follow the news (closely) and my views on a variety of issues, including: prostitution (legalize); term limits (for sure); believe the United States is the best country in the world (I do); sometimes think good ideas come from both Democrats and Republicans (yes); support expanding exploration of U.S.-based oil and gas reserves to lessen our dependence on foreign oil (yes); support gay marriage (yes); pro-choice (yes); resistant to the role of the United States as world policeman (yes); and it's too easy to get a credit card (yes). I was also asked if last weekend I'd played online games (no), went to church (no), and drank alcohol (yes). (You can take the survey at http://bit.ly/1aIcj7G.)
The result: I'm an "MBA Moderate," which Esquire describes as "mostly white, well-educated voters in upscale centers of the South and West who blend a don't-tread-on-me-streak with progressive social views." Not bad, except for the geographical peg. Our TV avatar: Larry David (not that there's anything wrong with that).
The survey's release was perfectly timed, coming just as an ill-conceived government shutdown that threatened a financial default was ending. The sort of behavior exhibited by the House Republicans who created this crisis surely played well to the far right but is anathema to centrists. The question going forward is whether we, as a group, will continue to cede the debate to the fringes, or assert our rightful place as the majority stakeholders in the nation. The power is ours, if we are willing to exercise it. For far too long we have allowed the ideologues to demean our independence on issues as a lack of principle, when in fact our willingness to eschew rote adherence to often unrelated talking points is the most principled stand of all.
"There's this sense that if you're in the center you kind of have a lack of intensity, or let's split the difference between the two sides, and that's not it at all," Esquire's Dorment told me.
"You have these people who feel very strongly about a set amount of beliefs . . . so this isn't a question of milquetoast, not engaged center. They feel very strongly. They just don't follow the particular contours of traditional liberalism or conservatism."
The strength in numbers that comes from the MBA Middle, Minivan Moderates, Pickup Populists, and Whatevermans is a power needing to be harnessed.
Michael Smerconish can be heard from 9 a.m. to noon on Sirius XM's POTUS Channel 124.