It wasn’t last week’s biggest news, but Gallup generated headlines with a poll revealing social conservatism rising to its highest level in a decade.
The number of Americans claiming to be conservative on social issues grew to 38 percent from 33 percent in 2022 and 30 percent in 2021, while those categorizing themselves as social liberals dropped from 34 percent in the two previous years to 29 percent.
But is it really true? Is social conservatism on the rise?
Gallup’s somewhat startling conclusion was based on a single question asking, “Thinking about social issues, would you say your views on social issues are” conservative, moderate, or liberal?
When queried about their ideological orientation toward “social issues” (as opposed to “economic issues”) just what are people thinking about?
Many academics define social issues as some version of “a problem that affects many people within a society,” rendering almost every matter before politicians a social issue, with the possible exception of naming post offices.
Some scholars offer lists including specifics like “substance abuse, discrimination, overpopulation, climate change, bullying, access to education and healthcare, violence, poverty, economic inequality, unemployment, the minimum wage” and scores of others.
Personally, I’d locate poverty, inequality, unemployment and minimum wage in the supposedly orthogonal dimension labeled “economic issues.”
But whatever social issues might be, it’s impossible to imagine voters consulting a running tally of their positions on all these issues to assess their social issue ideology.
A more succinct rendition of social issues came in the smear that 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern was the candidate of “acid, amnesty, and abortion,” with “acid” referring to support for legalizing marijuana and “amnesty” to his support for welcoming home Vietnam-era draft evaders.
Somewhat more recently, former Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) distilled social issues into the slogan, “G-d, guns and gays.” (He’s for the first two, against the third.)
Have Americans become more conservative on these briefer lists of social issues?
Support for legalizing marijuana remained a record high 68 percent in Gallup’s latest survey on the subject.
On abortion, Pew’s data is also unambiguous: 61 percent say it should be legal in at least most cases, matching record highs.
G-d isn’t an “issue,” though abundant evidence demonstrates the relationship between traditional religion and political conservatism. Gallup tells us while most Americans believe in G-d (81 percent), that number is lower than ever, as is membership in a house of worship, at just 47 percent.
On guns, the evidence is only slightly less clear. In the decade since Marist pollsters first asked, the largest number ever say controlling gun violence is more important (60 percent) than protecting gun rights (38 percent).
Eighty-one percent favor raising the legal age for buying guns to 21 in Fox News polling and 77 percent favor a 30-day waiting period on purchases—matching or exceeding record levels.
However, the 87 percent favoring background checks on all gun purchasers and the 61 percent supporting an assault weapons ban, are 4 and 6 points lower than previous highs.
Gallup’s more general question finds 57 percent saying gun laws should be stricter, 9-10 points below highs earlier this decade.
Finally, on gay rights, last year Public Religion Research Institute found record, 79 percent support for laws prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ+ people. Gallup recorded the highest support ever (71 percent) for once controversial gay marriage.
Transgender issues are newer on the public agenda and there’s been some backsliding as Republicans mounted a vicious assault on trans people.
For example, Gallup found the number who believe transgender athletes should only compete on teams matching their gender assigned at birth grew 7 points over the last two years, while the number saying changing one’s gender was morally wrong rose 4 points to 55 percent.
In short, Americans express liberal views on most key social issues and in many cases those liberal majorities are growing.
Large majorities reject conservative views on guns, but levels fluctuate with a poll’s proximity to a massacre.
And Americans are just beginning to grapple with transgender issues that only recently arrived on the public agenda.
Gallup’s headline-grabbing question assumes there’s some agreed upon set of social issues — there isn’t — and that people have insight into how their views on those issues have evolved — they don’t.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, a member of the Association’s Hall of Fame, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.
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Source : The Hill