Is America becoming more socially liberal?

November 30, 2012

Social issues worked in President Obama's favor on Election Day -- the same day that multiple states voted for the first time to legalize both gay marriage and recreational marijuana.

And that confluence has some suggesting the country is shifting to the left on social issues.


A man identified as "Christophe" smokes a joint outside a coffee shop in the Netherlands. (AFP/Getty Images)

But it's really too early to say that.

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.

Below is a compilation of polling from 1995 until today on support for the liberal position on four social issues: gay marriage, marijuana legalization, abortion rights and gun control.



Polling data from Washington Post, Gallup, and CBS News.

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.

(One issue that's not on this chart but is notable: Immigration. Despite increased talk about immigration reform after the 2012 election, polls suggest the country hasn't really shifted much when it comes to support for a path to citizenship.)

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.)

In addition, the debate over social issues helped Obama take some of the day-to-day focus off the still-struggling economy.

But the 2012 election really shouldn't be seen as an indication of a more socially liberal America. Just as the impact of social issues on President Bush's 2004 reelection win was probably over-stated (Bush quite simply ran a better campaign than John Kerry), it can be easy to over-analyze how social issues factored into Obama's win in 2012.

The 2012 election was a huge one for gay marriage and marijuana legalization, and if the polls are any indication, we are likely to see many more states embrace both of them in the coming years.

But for now, gay marriage and marijuana appear to be more the exception than the rule.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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