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.