The New Social Conservatism?

Is social conservatism really flagging in its electoral popularity? Or does that depend on how we define social conservatism? From The Fix blog at the Washington Post:

While the country has shifted significantly more liberal on gay marriage and marijuana in the last two decades, most other issues haven’t followed suit. In fact, Americans actually appear to be getting more conservative when it comes to two major social issues: abortion and guns …

The upward trends on marijuana and gay marriage are strikingly similar, with support steadily rising from less than 30 percent in the mid-1990s all the way to today, when about half the country supports both.

But if you look at abortion, Gallup polling actually shows support dropping below 50 percent since the mid-90s. The trend hasn’t been as pronounced as the upward trend for gay marriage and marijuana legalization, but it is statistically significant.

Meanwhile, the country has moved significantly to the right on guns, with less than half now calling for more strict gun laws …

Obama won on social issues because he picked the issues that worked in his favor and appealed to important voter blocs — contraception, gay marriage, path to citizenship — and because he avoided getting bogged down on guns and abortion. (Obama did run some targeted ads in favor of abortion rights, but it wasn’t a big focus of his campaign.)

The inclusion of contraception on that list rankles, but it’s also instructive. What’s the difference between contraception and every other issue addressed here? In the case of contraception, we’re not discussing whether or not it should be legal, but whether or not (or, more accurately, how) it should be subsidized. The fact that President Obama managed to blur that line to the point of virtually erasing it goes a long way towards explaining why he got so much mileage out of it.

I don’t know about you, but I can comfortably live in the world these numbers describe. My impulses on these issues tend to run to the more libertarian side anyway, so I’m not bothered in the slightest by gay marriage and I’m open to the idea of pulling back on marijuana laws and seeing what results (though I’d add that these experiments should be happening at the state and local level, which remains impossible as long as federal law is controlling).

Even if I assumed that I was strongly on the other side of those two issues, however (and I’m not really interested in litigating the particulars of them here,  as we’ve done that ad nauseam on Ricochet and I happily acknowledge that there are very thoughtful, incisive cases to be made in opposition), I’d still believe that the public was getting the most important issues right.

Abortion, dealing with the fundamental right of a human life not to be terminated on the grounds of representing an inconvenience, and gun rights, representing the legal capacity to repel potentially terminal violence, strike me as far more important than whether or not one is free to reenact a Cheech and Chong bit in the privacy of your own home or whether or not wedding bands throughout the nation are going to have to add more Culture Club to their repertoire. To put it simply: not all issues are created equal. And on the ones that matter most, we seem to be going in the right direction.

Thoughts?

  1. Mendel

    As a wannabe libertarian, I welcome these statistics.

    More importantly, this shows the folly of trying to group all issues into two opposing categories and pretending that all voters lie somewhere on  linear left-right axis.  People are much more complex and unpredictable than any of our grand philosophies give them credit for.

  2. Barkha Herman

    “I don’t know about you, but I can comfortably live in the world these numbers describe.”

    The trouble is that your message is not reaching the masses.  Even on supposedly “center right” Ricochet, there is at least a monthly SSM bashing thread that quickly reaches 100+ posts.

    Q: Why are we losing to the “eat your greens” and “don’t play with guns” crowd”?

    A: Sex and Drugs.

  3. Leslie Watkins

    I feel quite similarly. And I think lots of people are more conservative these days if not about smaller government in particular, about people needing to take greater personal responsibility for themselves and those they bring into this world in general. For example, I have not had one liberal friend balk at Adam Carolla’s notion that someone who cannot afford to feed and clothe his or her children should not be having children. Even five years ago I think most of my liberal friends and colleagues would have pushed back a bit on such a notion. In other words, I think most liberals are more like Mickey Kaus than, say, Marian Wright Edelman on this issue, which I take a huge positive.

  4. Schrodinger
    15

    For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men— 16 as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God.1 Peter 2:15-16

  5. AIG

    Abortion and guns aren’t social issues, as far as I can tell. Social conservatism, as I define it, has little to do with these topics, arguments for which can be made from any number of political directions and spectrum and which are really independent of a “social philosophy” (although many will disagree. But the point is, one can make perfectly reasonable legal arguments based on the US Constitution for them)

    Social conservatism is something else. I don’t know how to define it yet, but I know when I see it. I know when someone wants to stick their nose in my business and wag their finger at me in the name of some religion or some social philosophy. That sort of social conservatism is not a winning strategy. And I don’t say this because of any reason some might attribute to me…but rather because I don’t think that sort of social conservatism is compatible with the liberties of the US Constitution. 

    And at the end of the day, whatever personal beliefs most Americans hold over their life choices, few like to be preached at by politicians pretending to be holier than thou. 

  6. TheSophist

    I asked this question about what social conservatism means today. And it isn’t at all clear to me that gun rights and immigration issues are “social conservatism” issues.

    I think perhaps what you mean to say is that the country is becoming more libertarian, and you’re comfortable with that. As am I. But socially conservative? I don’t know about that.

    Again, if you define “social conservatism” to mean “liberty”, then yeah… I suppose. But if you define “social conservatism” to mean “really likes Apple products”, you’d get the same results. It’s all in the definition.

  7. Troy Senik, Ed.
    C
    TheSophist: I asked this question about what social conservatism means today. And it isn’t at all clear to me that gun rights and immigration issues are “social conservatism” issues.

    I think perhaps what you mean to say is that the country is becoming more libertarian, and you’re comfortable with that. As am I. But socially conservative? I don’t know about that.

    As AIG points out above, a certain amount of this is in the eye of the beholder. It seems as if the most capacious definitions now extend to anything that’s not explicitly foreign policy or economic policy. The latter especially still leaves some big issues — how do we classify immigration, for example? I don’t tend to think of it as a social issue either, but they do over at The Fix.

    I wouldn’t use this data to argue that we’re becoming more socially conservative. Rather, I’d use it to argue that there’s increasing value on some of the issues that tend to get placed in the social conservative basket and decreasing values for others — and that, happily, the ones whose stocks are up are the most important.

  8. Tom Meyer, Ed.
    C

    Seconding Mendel, a classmate of mine college (10 years ago) was simultaneously the president of the local chapters of GLAAD and Students for Life. Back then, she was an oddity. Now she’s normal. Like the others, I think that’s a good thing.

  9. George Savage
    C

    I’ve been mulling over the following sales pitch for conservatism.

    We live in a big diverse republic.  The original intent of the Constitution was to create a federal government that was innocuous in terms of how citizens lived their day-to-day lives.  Obviously, we have moved a long long way off that base.  Today federal drug laws make illegal what many states otherwise permit.  Similarly, the Supreme Court has outlawed any restriction on abortion anywhere, despite the fact that many states would like to regulate the practice or ban it in certain circumstances.

    Why must New Yorkers and Texans have the same laws respecting gay marriage and abortion but not firearms, taxes, the death penalty and a host of other issues?

    The genius of America is that we are one people but choose to live in different states, with different practices on a host of important matters.

    How about moving back to the original design, putting the states back in charge of the social issues?

  10. De_Maistre

    This would be fine until a state outlaws something the ACLU deems to be a “fundamental right,” resulting in a flood of litigation.

    George Savage: I’ve been mulling over the following sales pitch for conservatism.

    We live in a big diverse republic.  The original intent of the Constitution was to create a federal government that was innocuous in terms of how citizens lived their day-to-day lives.  Obviously, we have moved a long long way off that base.  Today federal drug laws make illegal what many states otherwise permit.  Similarly, the Supreme Court has outlawed any restriction on abortion anywhere, despite the fact that many states would like to regulate the practice or ban it in certain circumstances.

    Why must New Yorkers and Texans have the same laws respecting gay marriage and abortion but not firearms, taxes, the death penalty and a host of other issues?

    The genius of America is that we are one people but choose to live in different states, with different practices on a host of important matters.

    How about moving back to the original design, putting the states back in charge of the social issues? · 10 minutes ago

    Edited 3 minutes ago

  11. Herbert Woodbery

    Yep, Jim Crow laws would probably still exist if we didn’t have a federal constitution.

  12. KC Mulville

    A common canard from liberals is that “conservatives want less government” – so it must be hypocritical to favor strong defense, or to expect government to prevent abortions!

    To which, we conservatives answer that we don’t want less government. We want government to do what it’s supposed to do, but no more. The same is as true for social issues as it is for taxes and regulations. Government should only do what we agreed to, but no more.

    Government is an enormous power, and it’s tempting – especially to force society to do things that you’re too impatient to wait for. 

    Most conservatives think prostitution is immoral, and many think that gambling is close to it – but very few of us complain about Nevada (where both are legal). Why?? Because Nevadans voted for it. They agreed to allow it. Nevada’s government bureaucracy didn’t take the power to decide morality and then impose it on the people. The government didn’t exceed its authority.

    On the other hand, every SupremeCourt decision that springs from the emanations and penumbras of “privacy” embezzles the authority of the people.

    We are all being cheated. Social conservatives say so.

  13. Edmund Alexander

    Let’s take a look at the four issues where we’ve seen movement: abortion, gun rights, gay marriage, and marijuana.  What do these four ideas have in common?  Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

    I don’t see two conservative values and two liberal values.  I see four stands seeking to conserve a liberal order.

    We need to reclaim the word “liberal” and start talking about the unique character and genius of the American experiment.  Conservatism and liberalism are not opposites, especially not in the United States.  It’s statism that stands at odds with both.

  14. Douglas

    Social Conservatism (which is really, just Conservatism) isn’t a cafeteria. Echoing earlier posters, these numbers would seemingly argue for a libertarian streak, not conservatism. I would also argue that Libertarians shouldn’t get their hopes up. One, there is a very strong pro-abortion wing in the libertarian movement now, and they aren’t taking these trends lying down. They see growing anti-abortion sentiment in this country as a quasi-Taliban direction. Second, the same people that seemingly support gun rights in this data also want bigger government pretty much everywhere else. Ergo, they’re not really libertarians. They don’t want to be told what they can’t do, but they favor the government paying for what they want to do, and generally support the whole “tax the rich” ethos to pay for it. There’s not as much good news in those figures as you think.

  15. Byron Horatio

    I’ve always considered myself more of a cultural, rather than social convservative.  Maybe that’s just a result of being among the Sandra Fluke generation and having an upbringing that stressed fiscal conservatism above all else in my family.  I agree with the original post here in that this is not a negative development.  Traditional social conservatism, of the pro-traditional marriage variety will soon go the way of the dinosaurs like it or not. 

    I’ve always favored cultural conservatism rather than social conservatism, in that the insistence on the Protestant work ethic, the 2nd amendment, and manly virtues have the potential to be much bigger and broader winners than dying on the hill of traditional marriage. 

    The [for now] muted Republican Civil War ongoing is whether the party goes the Rand Paul route or the Mike Huckabee route figuratively speaking.  I certainly hope for its sake that it goes for the former.

  16. Nathaniel Wright

    I have been stating for weeks — in my optimistic way and you can check my last post on the Member Feed — the young voter isn’t as opposed to conservatism qua conservatism as many who are giving up on “them darn younguns’” seem to think.

    Obama lost 11 points of support in the 18-29 crowd in 2012.  He gained 1 point in the 30 – 44 crowd.  It was the only cohort in which he gained support from 2008.  The only one.  Four years worth of young people who supported Obama by 33 points aged into the 30 – 44 crowd and that demographic only shifted +1 in his favor. Look.  We lost the election at the Presidential level, but we made significant ground.  We need to improve our ground game and battle entrenched political machines, but let’s stop with all the Sturm und Drang.
  17. Rocket City Dave

    Social conservatism has often been associated with the American Evangelical subculture.

    That’s a disability in a wider culture that is prejudiced against American Evangelicals.

    We’ve got a Supreme Court with only Jews and Catholics on it. We have a religiously amorphous President. A lapsed Catholic VP. A Catholic Speaker of the House and a Mormon Senate Leader.

    If American Evangelicalism wasn’t a disability then they wouldn’t be locked out of the government despite being a third of the voters.

    Perhaps social conservatives ought to cast their net wider than American Evangelical or even Catholic thought in order to develop a way of talking about family and society that doesn’t turn off the broader American audience.

    That might help to expand the resonance of social conservatism to a group larger than American Evangelicals and a few traditional Catholics fellow travelers.

  18. Cornelius Julius Sebastian
    Nathaniel Wright: I have been stating for weeks — in my optimistic way and you can check my last post on the Member Feed — the young voter isn’t as opposed to conservatism qua conservatism as many who are giving up on “them darn younguns’” seem to think.

    Obama lost 11 points of support in the 18-29 crowd in 2012.  He gained 1 point in the 30 – 44 crowd.  It was the only cohort in which he gained support from 2008.  The only one.  Four years worth of young people who supported Obama by 33 points aged into the 30 – 44 crowd and that demographic only shifted +1 in his favor. Look.  We lost the election at the Presidential level, but we made significant ground.  We need to improve our ground game and battle entrenched political machines, but let’s stop with all the Sturm und Drang. · 14 hours ago

    This is a crucial point.  Let’s not solve the WRONG problem folks.

  19. Douglas
    Rachel L.: If it were possible to strike some kind of compromise whereby homosexuals got their marriage certificates but religious institutions and, indeed, private individuals were given very strong religious freedom-type protections allowing them to preserve their views and customs without persecution… I might sigh heavily and live with it. But it isn’t going to happen like that. It might be prudent for the GOP to focus its energies on the religious freedom side of the issue, but it’s imperative that the argument for conjugal marriage continue to be made, lest it be outlawed. · 10 hours ago

    That’s never going to happen precisely because of gays themselves, and the liberals that support them, not because of conservatives. When you get down to brass tacks, “gay marriage” is all about forcing legal, social, and cultural acceptance of homosexuality as not only normal, but good, and any opposition to it, at any level, as evil. It’s quite literally what the Bible warned against with  “woe to those who call evil good, and good evil”. It’s all about twisting the moral code.

  20. De_Maistre

    I’ve always felt that the message of social conservatism has broad ethnic and religious appeal. Yes, many American social conservatives are Christians, but there’s no reason why we can’t craft a more nuanced messaged that would attract Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and even atheists/agnostics. There are many people of different faiths and ethnic groups who value family and social stability and who feel threatened by progressive cultural and sexual mores.

    Perhaps social conservatives ought to cast their net wider than American Evangelical or even Catholic thought in order to develop a way of talking about family and society that doesn’t turn off the broader American audience.

    Edited 56 minutes ago

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