At The New Republic today, Thomas Edsall and I argue over what Giuliani’s campaign tells us about the Republican party. He says it shows that the party is less socially conservative than it used to be; I say he is overreading tiny pieces of evidence.
To my mind, his reply to me does not take account of this point I raise:
In some respects, of course, Republicans are more socially liberal than they used to be, just as society in general is. Republicans are less likely than they were 20 years ago to say that school boards should be able to fire gay employees or that AIDS is God’s punishment to gays. But Republicans are more likely to be on the conservative side of those social issues that divide contemporary society than the Republicans of the 1970s and 1980s were to be on the conservative side of the social issues that divided their society.
To quote from the Pew Research Center, which tracked respondents’ answers to six questions testing social liberalism and conservatism: In 1987, 49 percent of those surveyed “gave conservative answers to at least four of the six questions. In 2007, just 30% did so. This trend has occurred in all major social, political, and demographic groups in the population. While Republicans remain significantly more conservative than Democrats or independents on social values, they too have become substantially less conservative over this period” (emphasis Edsall’s).
Actually, the Pew data bolsters my side of the debate, not his. First of all, the six questions include one on firing gay teachers and one on AIDS as God’s punishment, and most of the rest are similar (or have little political salience, or both). Second, the gap between the parties on these questions has grown. The relative social conservatism of the Republican party has increased over the last twenty years, not decreased.