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.

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