Have the "culture wars" gotten worse?

By Razib Khan | December 21, 2011 11:52 pm

The assertion in the title seems almost trivial in an impressionistic sense. There really wasn’t a strong distinction on cultural issues between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in 1976. By the 1980s there definitely was a gap between George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis. And that chasm got wider as the years went on. I thought of this when reading this entry in Wikipedia on Jonathan Krohn, a teenager who wrote a book titled Define Conservatism. The entry in Wikipedia states:

The book outlines four fundamental principles of conservative thought: support for the United States Constitution, opposition to abortion, less government, and more personal responsibility. Krohn went on to apply the principles to current events and define whether specifically cited actions violated those principles…The book was dedicated to Ronald Reagan, William F. Buckley, Jr. and Barry Goldwater, whom Krohn describes as his political heroes, along with South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint.

What raised my eyebrows here is that Barry Goldwater did not oppose abortion rights. In fact, his wife, daughter and granddaughter have been involved in Planned Parenthood. If opposition to abortion is a key definition for what conservatism is, the reality is that conservatism didn’t exist before the 1970s, when that issue became polarized along ideological lines.

But that’s impression. What do the data say? For that, I looked at the General Social Survey.


I divided the data set into liberal, moderate, and conservative. And, I tracked all the years from 1970s down to the present. The graph below shows the trend for abortion.

While conservatives have become moderately more opposed to abortion rights, liberals have become much more supportive. I assume this is what you’d expect if one operated under a model of greater polarization. So I wanted to see if this held for other “culture wars” policy controversies. So I looked at the variable which tracked opposition to the banning of school prayer.

Here you see a different trend. All the groups have been moving in the same direction, toward greater support of the Supreme Court decision banning school sponsored prayer, though the initial divisions remain.

Finally, let’s look at the proportion of the population which agrees with the proposition that “homosexual sex is not wrong at all.”

Now you see that the gap is widening, but the chasm is due to the different rates of change of the opinions. All groups have exhibited increases in terms of assenting to the position that homosexual sex is not wrong, but conservatives much more slowly than liberals.

From these data all I can say is that we should be very careful about broad generalizations about the trends in the American “culture wars.

Note: You can see the original data here.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Politics
MORE ABOUT: Culture Wars
  • http://lyingeyes.blogspot.com ziel

    I looked quickly at the “GUNLAW” variable and it appears to show surprisingly (to me anyway) increasing support for gun restrictions over time among all groups, albeit with a flatter line for conservatives. Also, conservatives and moderates appear to show a dramatic dip in gun-control support over the last two surveys which liberals do not show. That I think is evidence of culture-war dynamics, with liberals digging in their heels over inroads on this issue from the right.

    FYI – I used polviews(r:1=1-2 “L”;2=3-5 “M”;3=6-7 “C”) – is that more or less your definition?

  • Ray Moscow

    It seems that ‘conservatives’ have actually gotten more liberal on social issues, even though their outspoken leaders seem to have gone very much in the opposite direction.

  • Charles Nydorf

    It would be interesting to see the trends for the core liberal issues which I think of as support of public education, progressive taxation, collective bargaining and a social safety network.

  • Karl Zimmerman

    One thing I wonder whenever you use these GSS results is if “black conservatives” are tilting the sample.

    I know from many past studies that there is a large minority of blacks, who despite voting for Democrats, consider themselves conservative. For example, this Gallup study from 2010 found 29% of blacks were conservative, although only 8% were Republican/Lean Republican.

    This is an issue, because even if these people describe themselves as personally conservative, or culturally conservative, in terms of U.S. electoral politics, blacks are clearly the most liberal group, not Asians as the article I linked to suggested. And while they’re certainly only a minority of the conservative data set, they could significantly alter the results.

    This is also the reason why I think articles which claim the U.S. is a “center-right country” and use self-reported ideological data as their reasoning need to be taken with a grain of salt. Just as we seem to be bad at judging our own reasons for any action, we seem to be pretty bad (particularly at the less well-informed end of the spectrum) judging what our politics actually are.

  • Archduke

    In re: to Goldwater and abortion. In 1964 abortion was illegal in every state. The push to strike down state abortion laws didn’t begin until around 1967.

    Abortion simply wasn’t as big an issue in that election.

    The surge in the pro-life movement began after Roe v. Wade in 1973.

  • Hugo Schmidt

    I tend to view opinion polling as a matter for racketeers.

  • Matt H.

    A libertarian conservative would have major differences with a social conservative. Look at Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich. Political thought is more than one dimensional.

  • Ross

    I’m really curious what happened in the early 90s to tip the scales in favor of gay rights. You can see, that among liberals, the uptick corresponds to the time when HIV/AIDS was discovered. This triggered the opposite response in moderates and conservatives, who were apparently more fearful. But then in 1990 or 1991 something really changed.

  • RKU

    The book was dedicated to Ronald Reagan, William F. Buckley, Jr. and Barry Goldwater, whom Krohn describes as his political heroes

    Actually, I think Gov. Reagan strongly supported the sweeping liberalization of abortion laws in California, which blazed the trail for similar efforts throughout the country. So I think Krohn is one-for-three on that particular issue.

    Maybe he should dedicate his next book on the growth of free-market capitalism to his heroes Adam Smith, V.I. Lenin, and Karl Marx…

  • scott the mediocre

    @RKU –
    I would like a cite to support that then “Gov. Reagan strongly supported the sweeping liberalization of abortion laws in California”. He certainly did _sign_ the “Therapeutic Abortion Act”, and (several years) later apologized for doing so. I know of no source on either side who claims that he strongly supported it (there has to be somebody on the anti-abortion side who makes that claim: it’s actually embarassing that I can’t find that somebody); what is your source?

    n.b. not claiming that such a source doesn’t exist – I would really like to have one.

  • RKU

    Well, I’m hardly an expert on this subject, but 30 seconds with Google confirmed (via both neutral and strongly pro-Life sources) that just months after coming into office, Reagan signed one of America’s most sweeping state abortion-liberalization laws, which increased the number of legal CA abortions from 518 to 100,000 per year, and soon prompted numerous other states and eventually the U.S. Supreme Court to follow the same path.

    His decision was strongly supported by two of his most conservative advisors, Lyn Nofziger and Ed Meese. Perhaps not unreasonably, a few years ago this led Mitt Romney to describe Reagan as “adamantly pro-choice”. Year later, Reagan became a strong critic of abortion, but never really did much about it.

    Was Reagan really “pro-Choice”? Were the Justices who ruled in Roe v. Wade really “pro-Choice”? I think that’s really just a matter of definition. For example, Karl Marx famously proclaimed “I am not a Marxist”…

  • http://washparkprophet.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    On issues as definitionally subtle as the trends in the “culture wars”, I just can’t feel very comfortable that something like the GSS is a very meaningful or useful instrument. Sure, it may capture some big obvious trends that could also be shown by other means, and it has the virtue of consistency. But, the notion that an instrument as bare as the GSS is really capturing what is going on just doesn’t ring true.

    It is like trying to evaluate a conversation with nothing more than a decibel meter. It can capture whether or not a shouting match errupted, but not what was said in the fine nuances of how people think about and frame issues and what saliance the issues have to them and what the terms even mean to them emotionally and conceptually that actually matter.

    As another analogy it is like trying to explain the movement of a paper airplane in a model where it is moving in a vacuum. It may be a first order approximation, but the next to leading order and next to next to leading order factors matter so profoundly that is comes up just short of pointless.

  • Clark

    I think Presidents haven’t always been in the culture wars but certainly the late 60’s and early 70’s were filled with them. A lot of the move towards conservatism was the anti-crime, pro-family counter-reformation to the revolution of the 60’s. Arguably it didn’t really finish playing out until recently. While you can point to Reagan and Bush I for evidence of the culture wars I think you also see them earlier with Reagan’s opposition to Ford that divided the Republican party in some ways in 75. Goldwater is an exception as he was more libertarian. I bet the culture wars didn’t go along conservative/liberal or Dem/Rep lines until the realignment with Reagan. Things were more diverse before then.

    I also think the question about abortion ought be case both in the “without exceptions” form and the form that makes exceptions for rape, incest or the like. I don’t know if there are stats on that. My prediction is that abortion banning with exceptions became the more dominant form of anti-abortion within the culture wars despite a vocal group that rejects even exceptions.

    Those stats on support for unrestricted abortions are rather interesting though. I’m surprised self-identified conservatives have support as high as they do and that the drop really only takes place in the mid 90’s. I wouldn’t have called that. As I mentioned I’d love to see more nuance to the question.

    The gay issue is more interesting. I actually expected far more conservatives to have no trouble with it. Although the changing point in the early 90’s was about what I remember. I think there’s a slow cultural acceptance there and that soon even conservatives will be over 50%. The counter-movement would be the birth rate of more conservative Christians. But even there lots of studies have shown even Evangelicals end up adopting social changes although they may rhetorically agree they are bad. So it’ll be interesting to see how gay acceptance goes and whether we’ll see a distinction between effective tolerance vs. a rhetorical “yeah it’s a sin” but who cares attitude. (I expect the later)

    One way of putting all this is to say that the content of the culture wars may change. For instance I think that the racial aspect of the culture wars that was present in the 60’s and 70’s is largely gone now. (Just look at how Cain was supported and how Paul’s racist newsletter is treated versus Nixon’s view abortion was fine for interracial babies)

  • 4runner

    I suspect that it is not the “culture wars” that have gotten worse but that the people who profit from creating the impression of “culture wars” have become much more sophisticated.

  • SeekTruthFromFacts

    “One way of putting all this is to say that the content of the culture wars may change. For instance I think that the racial aspect of the culture wars that was present in the 60′s and 70′s is largely gone now. (Just look at how Cain was supported and how Paul’s racist newsletter is treated versus Nixon’s view abortion was fine for interracial babies)”

    I guess one way to think about is that in the 50s and 60s, the culture wars involved lynchings and federal troops in Little Rock. So the culture wars have become more relaxed, moving from physical to rhetorical confrontations.

    It’s a standard rule of pressure groups that more noise indicates less power. So has power shifted away from both sides of this debate? Both sides demand a ‘grand narrative’, and postmodern theory of society suggests that there is increased suspicion of such claims….

  • informania

    No statistics on the significance of divergence??

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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