Will Americans Ever be Progressive on Social and Moral Issues? Imagining Public Opinion in 2020

The American public has long leaned to the right on social and moral issues, while leaning more to the left on economic and foreign policy issues.  Americans want more restrictions on Wall Street, more government initiative when it comes to strengthening Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, and favor the government providing health care for all those who can’t afford it.  All these issues are economic in the sense that the wealthier will have to be taxed to pay for them, or in the case of economic reform, it will require greater regulation of the private sector. On foreign policy matters, the public opposes costly, bloody foreign wars that are seen as a drain on the country in terms of financial resources and human lives.  This opposition manifests itself strongly in the post-Vietnam era, and the opposition is sustained in regards to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.


On the question of social and moral issues, however, the public leans quite a bit to the right when it comes to many policies.  The longstanding conservative tendency of the public appears to be driven to a large degree by the high level of religiosity in the U.S., in which Christianity is heavily linked to conservative views (by many at least) on a slew of issues such as abortion, gay rights, gun control, and opinions of Islam.


Many wonder if Americans will ever have progressive views on these social and moral issues.  There has been great attention directed toward the allegedly growing “culture war” in the U.S., and for good reason in light of the split nature of opinion on religiously-driven policy issues.  Some of the warnings, however, may be greatly exaggerated. 


This article predicts what public opinion will look like on various social and moral issues over the next decade.  While any predictions are bound to be tentative, those provided here are worth considering in that they are based upon trends in public opinion that have already unfolded in the last five to ten years, and are drawn from time series public opinion polls from Gallup, CBS, the New York Times, ABC, and the Washington Post.  In other words, the calculations provided below are what public opinion will look like by 2020, if current trends from the last ten years continue as they have.


On the issues of abortion and evolution, opinion appears to have changed little in the last ten years.  Nearly half of Americans supported pro-choice policy in 2000, and that number barely changed by 2010.  A similar pattern has unfolded with regards to creationism.  While in 1982 44 percent of Americans believed that God created man in his image (rejecting the commonly accepted scientific theory of evolution), that number remained at 44 percent as 2010 approached.  In light of the static nature of public opinion on these two issues, it seems unwarranted to predict a progressive change in opinion over the next ten years, barring any unforeseen developments.


On other moral issues, however, public opinion appears to have changed significantly.  On the issues of gun control and opinions of Islam, the public has taken a significantly conservative turn.  On other topics, however, such as gay marriage and the death penalty, the public has gradually become (relatively) more liberal to progressive.  Below I predict changes in public opinion based upon the trends we have seen unfold in various polling question time series during the post 2000 period. 


One can see that, under the current level of incremental change, support for gay marriage will reach a majority of the population by 2015, and a strong majority by 2020.  On the issue of the death penalty, the public remains strongly supportive of the “eye for an eye” defense, with 60 percent of Americans defending it as a legitimate policy.  Support has declined somewhat however.  If current changes continue, support for the death penalty will fall from 69 percent of the public to 58 percent in 2020.  This is still not a majority in terms of opposition to the death penalty, but it is certainly approaching a majority, and may change at an even faster rate if progressives become more active in educating the public on the dangers of false convictions and the death penalty.



On a number of issues, however, the public will likely grow more conservative if current trends continue.  The issue of gun control has recently seen a strong growth in support for deregulating ownership rules.  The percent of those who want to make gun laws stricter has declined from 53 percent of the population in 2001 to 44 percent by 2009.  If this trend keeps up, less than a third of Americans will supporter stricter gun control laws by 2020. Similarly, negative attitudes against Muslims are on the rise.  While 38 percent of Americans admitted to having an unfavorable view of Islam in 2003 that had increased to 48 percent by 2009.  If current trends continue, anti-Muslim sentiment will reach a majority of Americans by 2015, and continue to grow from that point forward.


The future rarely plays out like we expect.  Conceding this point, one should not make too much of the predictions above.  They are most relevant in terms of a commentary on politics today.  Public opinion may become more progressive or conservative on any of these issues in the future, no one can say for sure.  What these numbers suggest, however (especially those from 2001 to 2010) is that public opinion is not static.  It’s always changing. 


As Americans, we like to believe in the notion of progress, and to think of ourselves as enlightened, liberal thinkers.  Some of the trends in public opinion above, however, raise serious questions about these assumptions.  The growing Islamophobia in America, as documented in public opinion polls and as seen in the recent racist attacks on the Muslim community center near Ground Zero raise the disturbing specter of growing intolerance in America in the post-9/11 age.  "Orientalist" Anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism have long been a major problem in this country in terms of the dominant political and media cultures, as was understood all too well by the late Edward Said. 


Growing opposition to gun control also poses a serious risk.  We shouldn’t forget that there are an alarming number of those on the right who view the federal government as an escalating threat that must be combated through violence.  Recent polling of the Tea Party movement, for example, finds that approximately one quarter of the group’s supporters feel it is acceptable to use violence to get what they want in terms of political goals.  The right has long seen it as acceptable to use violence to achieve political goals, whether one is referring to Tea Party violence in 2009 Town Hall meetings, the attacks of extremsts like Timothy McVeigh, the terrorism of anti-abortion activists against medical doctors, or even former President George W Bush’s imperial "crusade" (a.k.a., the "War on Terror"). 


Some of the social cultural changes above, however, do give us cause for optimism.  The growing support for gay marriage coincides well with the flurry of recent state legal initiatives (seen in the courts and in state legislation) to promote the notion of equal rights for gays and lesbians, as required under the equal protection clause (admittedly, there have been legal setbacks too).  Seemingly, a growing number of people are recognizing that religious intolerance directed against gay and lesbian individuals violates the spirit of freedom long supported by Americans – particularly the freedom not to be repressed by someone else’s religiously motivated intolerance. 


Much of the progressive change in public opinion appears to be the result of generational transformation.  The 18-29 age group is more than 2.5 times more likely to support gay marriage, when compared to those 65 and older, and support increases steadily throughout all age groups when one examines them from oldest to youngest.  Support for the death penalty is also lower (albeit less dramatically so) for those between 18-29, compared to the public as a whole.  There are also definite differences with opinions of Islam for the young and old, as those in the 18-29 group are nearly twice as likely to have favorable views of Islam compared to those 65 and older. Only on the issue of gun control are the younger more likely to oppose restrictions on gun control.


The growth of progressive opinion among the young is encouraging.  Public opinion on the issues in question, however, may unfold any number of ways different from what’s been predicted here depending on the level of organization in, and effectiveness of conservative and progressive activist groups.  The point, however, is that public opinion will change as American culture changes.  Whether we take a step forward in terms of effectively promoting a renewed progressive culture, or fall backward toward reactionary politics and intolerance, is an open question.  Our success will depend on whether the left is willing to renew its commitment to social movements in the name of ending religious intolerance, bigotry, and reactionary extremist violence.



Anthony DiMaggio is the editor of media-ocracy (www.media-ocracy.com), a daily online magazine devoted to the study of media, public opinion, and current events.   He has taught U.S. and Global Politics at Illinois State University and North Central College, and is the author of When Media Goes to War (2010) and Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2008). He can be reached at: [email protected]

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