The Long View

Americans are rejecting social conservatism

The “moral values” theory of how the Democrats lost in 2004 is a typical product of modern American punditry. It provides a neat and compelling pop-sociological explanation of current political affairs. It has been instantly adopted by every commentator and arm-chair analyst in the union. And most crucially, it is pure bullshit.

But I could care less what inane ideas are bouncing around in the cavernous regions we call the “talking heads.” What really worries me is that because 22 percent of respondents in an exit poll cited “moral values” as their top concern in this election, many Democratic politicians have concluded that Americans just don’t give a damn about jobs or national security, and that we’ve suddenly turned into a nation of ultra-traditionalist, socially intolerant Archie Bunkers.

Having bought into this theory, the Democratic leadership feels we need to fight fire-and-brimstone with fire and brimstone. Last week the party chose Tom Daschle’s replacement as Democratic leader in the Senate: Harry Reid, a Nevadan senator who opposes abortion and favors a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning.

To be fair, despite his conservative leanings, Senator Reid talks a good game about his willingness to fight the GOP on matters of principle when necessary. The Democrats’ prospects over the next four years will largely depend on whether Reid is serious about defending progressive Democratic principles, or whether he will give into the temptation to pander to hard-line social conservatives. The latter is a losing proposition: fashionable pundit-babble about “moral values” aside, over the past few decades, Americans have been abandoning social conservatism like rats off a sinking ship. Rather than wanting to legislate their moral values for others, on a host of social issues, Americans increasingly favor personal autonomy in matters of lifestyle and conscience.

For example, Public Agenda—an organization that researches public opinion—found that approval of interracial marriage has risen dramatically since the civil rights era: from a mere 6 percent of the public approving in 1958 to 73 percent in 2003. Public support for abortion rights increased rapidly in the decade before the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, according to the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey. Since then, support for legal abortion has remained stable at a fairly high level, according to a survey from the University of Michigan’s National Election Studies.

The World Values Survey has also found increasingly tolerant attitudes among Americans. Between its first global survey in 1981 and the 1990 survey, acceptance of euthanasia, for instance, rose markedly, as it did between the 1990 and 1997 surveys. Over the same period, more Americans came to approve of single motherhood. And at the same time, approval of homosexuality rapidly increased. (Significantly, a New York Times/CBS News poll this year found that 55 percent of Americans favor equal partnership rights for same-sex couples—either same-sex marriage or civil unions.)

This is an eclectic smorgasbord of issues, to be sure. What connects them is a growing consensus in favor of personal autonomy in moral decisions, and a rejection of using government to enforce “traditional moral values.” In fact, if I were so reckless as to use the “L-word,” I might just call this a nation-wide, long-term shift in a socially liberal direction.

With the country moving toward historically Democratic values on social issues, the sight of Democratic politicians bending over backwards to ingratiate themselves with extreme social conservatives is frankly a bit silly. In fact, the real ideological battle for Democrats may be looming on the economic front. Americans are moving in a libertarian direction across the board: while people are becoming more socially liberal, they have also been nurturing feelings of tolerance for market capitalism.

In 1990, the folks at the World Values Survey added some questions about attitudes toward the mysterious workings of the invisible hand. Between 1990 and 1997 a growing number of Americans came to find the idea that “wealth can grow so there’s enough for everybody” more to their liking than the notion that “people can only get rich at each other’s expense.” And in 1997, Americans were more likely than they had been in 1990 to see competition as essentially “good” rather than “harmful.”

The case Democrats must make is that, in the age of markets, the government’s role in providing a social safety net and ensuring fair competition becomes more important, not less. Voters don’t have to take Ted Kennedy’s word for this. As the godfather of laissez-faire, Adam Smith, once wrote, “It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, cloath and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, cloathed and lodged.”

As Smith wrote those words in 1776, a libertine revolution was taking place on this side of the Atlantic, based on ideals such as the pursuit of happiness and freedom of conscience. The progressive Democratic vision—in which the government helps working families, invests in kids and keeps its paws off your civil liberties—is a modern expression of those revolutionary ideals. Senator Reid and other Democratic leaders should fight for that vision and reject the values of intolerance that Americans are spurning.

Eoghan W. Stafford ’06 is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.