Thursday, April 26, 2012

Independents are Winning the Culture War

On three contentious “culture-war” issues the American public continues to be generally libertarian. Support for gay marriage and gun rights have both risen, though one issue is supposed “right-wing” and the other “left-wing.” Libertarians would dispute that formulation as flawed.

Pew asks an either-or question on gun rights. They want people to say what is “more important” to them, “control gun ownership” or “protect the right of Americans to own guns.” In 2000 66% picked “control gun ownership” and only 29% wanted to protect Second Amendment rights. The most recent poll shows that the percentage wanting to protect gun rights has jumped 20 points while those supporting gun control has declined by 21 points.

While a majority of black Americans want gun control, the number supporting Second Amendment rights has doubled since 1993, from 18% to 35%. The percentage “prioritizing gun control has fallen 11 points” during the same period. Women have also increased their support for gun rights, up 9 points from just four years ago, to 39%. The critical independent voters have also become more supportive of gun rights, with 55% support, up almost 20 points four or five years.

Gay marriage support has steadily increased as well. While 22% of Americans are strongly supportive of marriage equality, 22% are also strongly opposed. However, that doesn’t reveal how “strong” support or opposition has shifted. In 2004, Pew found that 11% “strongly” supported gay marriage while 36% has strongly opposed it. As strong support has grown by 11 points, strong opposition has dropped by 14 points. Only eight years ago “strong” opposition to marriage equality was twice the level of “strong” support. That they are even now is bad news for cultural conservatives.

The Pew survey shows that a plurality of 47% of all Americans supports marriage equality and 43% oppose it. In 2004 total support was 31% to 60% opposition. In a very short period support has gone 16 points while opposition has dropped 17 points. Opposition to marriage equality has fallen in every demographic group including those groups previously most opposed to the idea.

Since 2004 opposition to marriage equality has dropped 15 points with men and 18 points with women. Among white voters it has decline 18 points; blacks down 18 points and among voters over 65 years of age, down 18 pts. Even among Republicans opposition has dropped 10 points, among independents it has dropped 15 points, and for Democrats it has dropped 15 points. Even among evangelical Christians opposition has declined 13 points in eight years.

The only demographic groups where a majority opposes marriage equality Republicans, evangelicals and voters over 65 years of age. To a large degree the three groups opposed have considerable overlap. That’s bad news for Republican conservatives who are relying on an elderly subgroup to keep their campaign going. Relying for support on a dying demographic is just loosing politics, no matter how you slice it.

Abortion is a bit more complex because the Pew poll asks if Americans support legal abortion in all, or most cases. I’m not clear what “most” cases means and I suspect most respondents aren’t either. In practical terms, contrary to assumptions, “most” cases really are pretty close to being “all” cases. I suspect opposition to “legal in all cases” is because of the fear of abortions performed very late in the pregnancy. Few abortions actually fall into this category though many on the conservative Right emphasize that issue.

When it comes to abortion being legal in “all” cases 23% of Americans are on board, and another 31% want it to be legal in most cases. Only 16% want abortion to be illegal in “all” cases and 23% say it should be illegal in “most” cases. Support totals 54% verses 39% opposition.

Certainly, in the eyes of many, these three issues are major battles in the so-called “culture war.” The “mainstream” view would appear that the Right is winning the battle over guns, the Left is winning the battle on marriage equality, and the Left has kept a consensus on abortion. Libertarians, of course, view it through another prism, one that doesn’t prefer to use Left or Right, but individual choice versus state control. Once you move to that prism then there has been steady growth for the libertarian position.

It appears the main reason that the libertarian position is ahead on these issues is because of independent voters. A majority of Democrats oppose gun rights; a majority of Republicans oppose abortion and marriage equality. Independent voters are the reason Republicans are winning on gun rights, and Democrats are winning on abortion and marriage rights. Neither Democrats, nor Republicans, by themselves would be able to muster a majority view on these issues. They need independent voters and those voters are consistently more pro-liberty than either of the two controlling parties. You can find the entire Pew Survey here.

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