One popular explanation for the triumph of right-wing economics, familiar to readers of Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, is that cultural issues have obscured pocketbook ones. Conservatives have tricked the masses into voting on the basis of social issues, thus ignoring their economic self-interest. . . . This does not, however, explain a slightly different question: how and why the economic right has gained so much strength over the last three decades. After all, by nearly any measure, the American public has grown more socially liberal over this span. Since 1977, the proportion of Americans believing gays should be allowed to teach in elementary school has doubled, from 27 to 54 percent. Those favoring gay adoption has risen from 14 to 49 percent. Since 1976, the proportion of Americans who believe women deserve an equal role in business and political life has nearly doubled, from 30 to 57 percent. The proportion who believe that a woman’s place is in the home has collapsed from 10 to 2 percent.
If the public is not moving right on economics, and it is not even moving right on social issues, then we cannot explain the rise of right-wing economics by looking at the voters.
–Jonathan Chait, The Big Con, p. 7
Thomas Edsall made a similar point in a debate with me a few months ago: Americans have gotten markedly more liberal on social issues, which means that social issues will have less and less power for Republicans in the future. But both Edsall’s conclusion and Chait’s are wrong. To be more precise, they’re non sequiturs. It is entirely possible for a society to become more socially liberal over time while consistently favoring socially conservative candidates.
During my debate with Edsall, I pointed out that none of the issues he cited — issues on which the public had gotten more liberal — were highly politically salient. Abortion has been the biggest of the social issues. For three decades, Gallup has asked Americans whether they think abortion should never be permitted, should always be permitted, or should sometimes be permitted. The results from 2005 do not look markedly more liberal than the results from 1975. So these polls give us no reason to think that opposition to abortion has lost political power, or is likely to do so. (They also show that at least some leftward trends in public opinion can be reversed: That Gallup question showed stronger and stronger support for abortion from 1975 to about 1990, and then falling support thereafter.)
On other politically important issues, of course, public opinion has indeed moved in a liberal direction. If anyone had thought to do a poll on gay marriage in 1977, it would have shown much lower support than it does today. What Edsall, Chait, and like-minded analysts don’t see is that it is precisely this leftward shift in public opinion that has made it possible for conservatives to win votes on the issue.
If 95 percent of the population still opposed gay marriage, it wouldn’t be a political issue in the first place. To generalize the point: Traditionalism would not provide a party with a successful platform in a society composed almost entirely of traditionalists.
A society can simultaneously become more socially liberal and create new political opportunities for social conservatives. It is, after all, the liberalization to which the conservatives react.
Now of course public opinion on an issue can change so much that the old conservative position is no longer tenable, and successful candidates can no longer take it. If only 10 percent of the population still opposes gay marriage in 20 years, it won’t be an issue then, either. When public opinion changes that much, however, the issues get redefined. A new conservative position emerges, more liberal than the previous one but less liberal than the contemporary liberal one. And this new conservative position sometimes has a lot of political power.
Almost nobody in America wants to bring back serious laws against contraception. I’m sure that the trendline of polls taken over the last century would show a marked liberalization. But that doesn’t mean that everyone is eager to have fourth-graders instructed in how to use contraception, or that conservatives can’t thrive politically by resisting such instruction.
A society could, in theory, grow more liberal for decades while at every point favoring politicians who oppose that liberalization. I think something like that has, in fact, been true of American society for the last few decades. It might end up being true for the next few, too.