The latest front in America’s culture wars is in Alabama. Or is it Georgia? Mississippi? Ohio? All these states, plus a few more, have passed anti-abortion statutes recently, yet more evidence of the intense polarization around issues of gender, sex and religion.
As usual, it’s not quite that simple. Abortion may be a uniquely divisive issue, and there are growing divisions among Americans along racial and economic lines. When it comes to issues of gender, sex and religion, however, Americans seem to be moving in tandem — and becoming more tolerant.
The so-called culture wars, according to new research from two sociologists at New York University, are not necessarily about the direction of change, but about the pace of it. Simply put, Democrats change before Republicans do.
An example: In 1996, a third of Democrats and only 16 percent of Republicans supported same-sex marriage. By 2017, the split was 74 percent to 47 percent. Both parties are changing, but the point is that the relative gap between them has narrowed. And while Democrats got to a supermajority faster, now Republicans are changing their views more quickly; Democratic support is leveling off while Republican support is accelerating. From 2013 to 2017, Democratic support edged up just one percentage point, while Republican support rose 19 percentage points.
It’s a common pattern described in the research as “an inverse U-shaped curve.” At first, the difference between the two parties on an issue is small. Then the Democratic Party begins to shift rapidly. The partisan gap widens. Eventually, however, Democrats hit a plateau just as Republicans are starting to shift. This causes the gap to close almost as rapidly as it opened.
The authors of the research, Delia Baldassarri and Barum Park, have analyzed the voting patterns of Americans over 44 years on dozens of economic, foreign-policy and civil-rights issues. They report that this U-shaped pattern holds for what they call “moral issues” — a category that includes gender, sexuality, women’s rights and religion.
In one sense, this research simply validates what may be an obvious intuition. As Zach Goldberg, a political scientist at Georgia State University, told me: “Conservatives are slow to change on most issues. They are conservative, after all!”
But there can still be underappreciated consequences to such an observation. One of them is that this pattern can obscure larger trends.
For example, there is growing concern about America’s isolationist turn, and fear that the U.S. is becoming more closed to trade and immigration. The truth is precisely the opposite. Americans have never been more open to free trade or immigration. It’s just that, as with social issues, the views of Democrats are shifting much faster than those of Republicans.
The great exception to this pattern is the abortion debate. Overall, perhaps surprisingly, Americans have roughly the same views on abortion now as they did in the years just after Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973. At the same time, the debate has become more polarized over the last four decades: In the 1970s, Democrats and Republicans were about equally likely to support abortion restrictions. Today it is one of the most divisive issues between the two parties.
This points to a more fundamental divide than exists over most cultural topics. For whatever reason, there is no evidence in the data of a convergence of views. Where the country is headed is anyone’s guess. What’s clear is that the abortion debate and any wider culture war are proceeding along very different trajectories.
Karl W. Smith, a Bloomberg columnist, is a former assistant professor of economics at the University of North Carolina’s school of government.