The Myth of “The Social Issues”: The Politics of Abortion and the Politics of Gay Rights are Different

by David Karol on August 9, 2012 · 5 comments

in Blogs

In today’s New York Times Susan Saulny’s article “Young in G.O.P. Erase the Lines on Social Issues” appears. Change in party positioning on issues is a very important topic. I wouldn’t have written a book about it if I didn’t think so. Unfortunately, this is a misleading article that demonstrates that the term “social issues”, much like “weapons of mass destruction”, is so broad that it may obscure more than it reveals. The article’s thesis is that younger Republicans are becoming more liberal on “the social issues”, defined as same-sex marriage and abortion. Saulny cites polling data showing that a growing minority of Republicans under 30 support same-sex marriage. This is true enough. Study after study shows that younger voters in almost all categories are more supportive of gay rights, although much change is also visible in the views of their elders.

Where the article goes off the rails is the claim that what is true of same-sex marriage is true of abortion. It isn’t. Tellingly, Saulny does not cite any actual polling data on abortion. Instead, Saulny interviewed young GOP activists and found some who are pro-marriage equality and pro-choice and want their party to focus on the economy and downplay “the social issues.” Of course attitudes on abortion and gay rights are correlated and it’s not surprising that activists who are willing to loudly buck their party on one of these topics may also break from it on another. Moreover, there remain many pro-choice Republican (and pro-life Democratic) voters. Beyond that Republicans from Mitt Romney on down understand the value of focusing on the economy, given the slow recovery Americans are experiencing this year.

Yet the larger story of survey after survey is one of change on same-sex marriage and LGBT rights generally as contrasted with great stability on the question of abortion rights. There is even some evidence that younger voters are more on the pro-life side of the debate. A 2011 Gallup Poll found that while 69% of Republicans over 55 called themselves “pro-life” 73% of those under 35 did so. In general differences between the generations on abortions are quite small whether we are looking at Republicans or the broader public. Readers of the article would never know this is the case.

The politics of abortion and gay rights look very different at both the mass and elite levels. The main change on the abortion issue is the greater extent to which the conflict has become partisan since it reached the national agenda in the early 1970s. That change has occurred via shifts in both parties. Initially many prominent Democrats including Ted Kennedy, Joe Biden, Jesse Jackson, Dick Gephardt and Tip O’Neill were pro-life while well-known Republicans including Ronald Reagan and both Presidents Bush took more liberal stands. Republican voters were more pro-choice than Democrats until the mid-1980s. With the incorporation of feminists in the Democratic coalition and the religious right in the GOP many politicians changed their stands. Among voters the alignment between party identification and abortion views has gradually increased as well. Yet while abortion has become an increasingly partisan issue, overall attitudes regarding the topic and public policy have been quite stable.

In contrast, gay rights was a fringe issue in the 1970s. It was not until 1980 that the Democratic Platform mentioned sexual orientation in the long list of categories regarding which Democrats opposed discrimination. It wasn’t until the 1990s that a majority of Democratic Members of Congress would co-sponsor a bill banning discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Since then some support for gay rights has become standard among Democratic politicians, many of whom have changed their stands on the issue over the course of their careers. Since Republican elites have barely moved the issue has become more partisan largely due to changes in the Democratic Party. Republican voters and Republican politicians remain largely opposed to same sex-marriage. On other gay rights issues Republican politicians are more conservative than their supporters overall; even majorities of GOP voters supported ending “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and a ban on employment discrimination while few Congressional Republicans supported these changes. These are not high priorities for many voters however, so it was easy for Republican politicians to side with social conservatives in their coalition who do care about these issues.

Same-sex marriage remains far more controversial than these other gay rights issues, so there is reason to expect Republican political elites to maintain their opposition for several years, despite increasing voter support for marriage equality. Judging by GOP elites’ resistance even to more popular policies like repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” change may be slow. Still, no electorate is immortal and in the long run GOP elites politicians will probably moderate their positions on gay rights. There is much less evidence that they will have any reason to do so on abortion in the foreseeable future.

{ 5 comments }

Alan T. August 9, 2012 at 7:59 pm

Does the abortion rate fall faster during Democratic administrations?

According to data collected by the CDC, the abortion rate fell markedly, by about 23%, during the Clinton administration. The abortion rate did not decrease by more than about 4% in any Republican administration after Roe v. Wade.

From Nixon’s last year through the Carter administration, the abortion rate rose steadily. I assume this was a case of supply rising to meet demand. I do not have data for the Obama administration.

Can anyone explain why the abortion rate fell markedly during the Clinton administration?

I take my data from http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/pdf/ss/ss5713.pdf and http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/pdf/ss/ss6015.pdf.

RobC August 9, 2012 at 11:36 pm

Though it is true that during his presidency Bill Clinton appears to have limited his extramarital activities to oral sex and related diversions (see fn. 209 to the Starr Report) that cannot cause unwanted pregnancies, it’s preposterous to imagine that is the cause of the decline in the abortion rate during those years.

Truthiness is not truth August 11, 2012 at 11:42 am

1) Do you have data for the 8 years between the Clinton administration and the Obama? You know, the period called the Bush administration?

2) It may be due to what is called the ‘Roe’ effect, that more children are born to women who oppose abortion (due to the fact that, given equal pregnancy rates, all children are born to pro-life mothers while only some children are born to pro-abortion mothers) than are born to those who have abortions. Presumably, ceteris paribus, the daughters of mothers who oppose abortion will be more likely to agree with that position, while the daughters of mothers who have had abortions might wonder about their siblings who never were, and be slightly less likely to have an abortion as well. Adding this two components of the Roe effect together could serve as an explanation for a declining abortion rate.

3) Abortion rates differ significantly among demographic groups in the US (as well as world-wide). As both the white and black portions of the US population plateaued and declined, while Asian and hispanic shares increased, cultural impacts on the overall abortion rate could be an explanation.

Alan T. August 11, 2012 at 5:59 pm

Thanks for your comment!

1) Yes, see below.

2) and 3) From 1980 to 2008, the abortion rate fell by about 29%: a 23% decline during the Clinton administration, and a 6% decline during the Reagan, GHW Bush, and GW Bush administrations put together. You make good points, but you don’t explain why most of the decline in the abortion rate took place during the Clinton administration.

number of abortions per 1000 women aged 15-44 years

52 46
reporting reporting
areas areas

1973 14
1976 21
1980 25
1984 24
1988 24
1992 23
1995 20
1996 21
1997 20 18
2000 16
2004 16
2008 16

The 52 reporting areas are the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and New York City (which reports separately from the rest of the state of New York).

After 1997, not all states reported abortions. The 46 reporting areas exclude Alaska, California, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Louisiana. The data for 2008 also excludes Maryland.

I computed the 23% decline during the Clinton administration by multiplying 20/23 (50 areas, 1992 through 1997) by 16/18 (46 areas, 1997 through 2000).

Alan T. August 11, 2012 at 6:05 pm

Sorry, some necessary white space was removed when I posted.

52 reporting areas

1973 14
1976 21
1980 25
1984 24
1988 24
1992 23
1996 21
1997 20

46 reporting areas

1997 18
2000 16
2004 16

45 reporting areas

2008 16

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