Partisans on each side of the political divide had something to cheer about with regard to polling on social issues this week. But if you want to know which way the country is heading, you should look at the surveys in tandem, avoiding the temptation to cherry-pick.
Gallup found: “The 41% of Americans who now identify themselves as ‘pro-choice’ is down from 47% last July and is one percentage point below the previous record low in Gallup trends, recorded in May 2009. Fifty percent now call themselves ‘pro-life,’ one point shy of the record high, also from May 2009.”
Meanwhile, The Post-ABC News poll found: “Overall, 53 percent of Americans say gay marriage should be legal, hitting a high mark in support while showing a dramatic turnaround from just six years ago, when just 36 percent thought it should be legal. Thirty-nine percent, a new low, say gay marriage should be illegal.”
At first glance you might see conflicting trends, one favoring social conservatives and the other opposing this segment of the electorate. But this, I think, makes the mistake of ignoring the fundamental differences between these issues, although many people line up as pro-life/anti-gay marriage or pro-abortion/pro-gay marriage.
I have argued, and the poll seems to bear this out, that the movement toward acceptance of gay marriage is steady and inevitable. Claims for greater inclusion (be it desegregation or religious minorities serving in high office) usually prevail over time, as one might expect in a tolerant and diverse society. In the case of gay marriage, the increased openness of gays and the number of Americans aware of gay friends, family and colleagues have assisted in the acceptance of gay marriage. The move is generational, even within the conservative movement. And finally, because the Supreme Court did not monopolize the field, the issue was debated in the political realm where compromises (e.g. civil unions) and genuine soul-searching could take place.
Abortion is not a matter of bringing more Americans into the fold, of course, but of determining competing claims (the mother and the unborn child). In this case, the progress of medical technology, coupled with a political sense of being aggrieved that the courts had taken over the issue, fueled a vibrant pro-life movement that has changed hearts and minds. Arguably abortion will be harder to defend over time as the age of viability outside the womb gets reduced further and further.
These remain highly contentious issues, but one can see some common trends. First, the political realm is infinitely superior in steering through social change. If you want to break ground, departing from “traditional values,” the courts are bad place to start.
Second, pro-marriage advocates essentially failed to make the case that gay marriage harms traditional marriage; pro-life advocates have by contrast been hugely successfully in making Americans aware of the health and moral status of unborn children. (So if you want government to stop people from doing something you better show it harms others.)
And finally, unlike pols and pundits, Americans are not easily categorized. They can be pro-life and pro-immigration or anti-gun control and pro-gay marriage. Ordinary Americans don’t decide all issue by rote but reflect and often adopt polyglot views. Maybe politicians can appreciate that Americans aren’t so simplistic or critical of diverse views. If our politicians were as reflective and thoughtful as the general population on these issues the country, I am certain, would be far better off.