In the asylum that is American politics, beware a candidate like Barack Obama when he is lauded for moving to “the center” — because usually that means he is drifting away from it.

Over the last month, the Democratic presidential nominee has backed a measure to permit warrantless wiretapping and protect telecom companies when they violate customers’ privacy; sent conflicting signals about whether he will reform the NAFTA trade model; and threatened to revise his timetable for ending the war in Iraq. Universally, reporters have billed this dance as a move to the middle. As the Associated Press claimed in a typical description, Obama’s shifts are designed “to appeal to the center of the electorate.”

However, empirical data prove “the center of the electorate” is exactly the opposite:

— Polls by Quinnipiac University and the Mellman Group found majorities support warrant requirements for wiretaps and oppose immunity for companies that released private consumer information without such warrants.

— Surveys by Fortune magazine, CNN and The Wall Street Journal report that most Americans oppose NAFTA-style trade policies.

— For years, major polls have consistently shown Americans want a firm timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. As just one of many examples, five separate USA Today surveys since 2007 have shown majorities want the president to “set a timetable for removing troops from Iraq and to stick to that timetable regardless of what is going on in Iraq.”

So, the undebatable evidence tells us precisely where the center of public opinion is. Yet when a presidential candidate moves away from the center, we are told he is moving toward it. What gives?

Part of the up-is-down distortion reflects perspective — or lack thereof.

Most politicians and journalists who set the parameters of our political debate live in Washington and make six-figure salaries. They are geographically, financially and socially isolated from the blood-and-guts consequences of today’s two wars — the one in Iraq and the one on the middle class. That insulation skews viewpoints.

Indeed, the center of opinion in the nation’s capital is very different from the center of opinion in the country at large. In elite D.C., a moderate is one who backs job-killing trade deals, legal immunity for corporate wrongdoers, and wars for oil, regardless of casualties. And so when Obama embraces those positions, Beltway opinion-makers really think he’s being a “centrist” — regardless of how far away from the actual center he’s moving.

But, then, not all politicians and pundits are completely ignorant of life outside the palace walls. A calculated Jedi mind trick is at work here, too.

When regular folks talk to friends and neighbors, we sure feel like our desire for privacy, disgust with NAFTA and opposition to the Iraq war are mainstream majority positions — and they are. But then comes the barrage.

Day after day, smiling anchormen, blow-dried correspondents and silver-tongued congressmen follow the Big Lie theory of indoctrination, taking to our televisions, radios and newspapers insisting that crazy is normal, the majority is the minority and — most important — the fringe is the “center.” This is no accident.

These voices of the status quo do not want the status quo challenged. They deliberately broadcast messages crafted to get us — the mainstream — to question our mainstream-ness, while convincing politicians that the Establishment’s extremism represents a responsible middle ground.

More Aldous Huxley than George Orwell, these are the methods of modern propaganda, with the celebration of Obama’s “centrism” the latest doublespeak. In this brave new world, language is sculpted to skew the “center,” intimidating the majority from demanding concrete change for fear of looking like lunatics. It is a slickly packaged process of marginalization and demoralization — one with an underlying goal: keeping the real lunatics running the asylum.

David Sirota is a best-selling author whose newest book, “The Uprising,” was released in June. He is a fellow at the Campaign for America’s Future and a board member of the Progressive States Network, both nonpartisan organizations. His blog is at

© 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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