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The Bush Administration, Sex and the Moral Agenda$

Edward Ashbee

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9780719072765

Published to Manchester Scholarship Online: July 2012

DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9780719072765.001.0001

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The rise of the moral agenda and American public opinion

The rise of the moral agenda and American public opinion

Chapter:
(p.13) 1 The rise of the moral agenda and American public opinion
Source:
The Bush Administration, Sex and the Moral Agenda
Author(s):

Ashbee Edward

Publisher:
Manchester University Press
DOI:10.7228/manchester/9780719072765.003.0002

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter traces the emergence of the moral agenda as a key issue in American public opinion and in U.S. politics. It explains that moral and cultural concerns became frontline political issues from the late 1960s onwards, as a result of the sexual revolution and the loosening of established moral codes, particularly among the Woodstock generation. The chapter also highlights the role of the Christian right, which had established itself as an important constituency that could exert significant political leverage, in reshaping judicial politics, interest group activity and the character of the party system. It also investigates the variables that might account for the growing tolerance of premarital sexual relationships and homosexuality in the 1960s and 1970s, and discusses George W. Bush's electoral strategy and his handling of moral issues in his campaign.

Keywords:   moral agenda, public opinion, U.S. politics, sexual revolution, moral codes, Woodstock generation, Christian right, premarital sexual relationships, homosexuality, George W. Bush

Moral and cultural concerns became frontline political issues from the late 1960s onwards.1 In the years that followed President Richard Nixon’s inauguration in January 1969, tensions around questions such as abortion, single parenthood, the role of women and the legitimacy of same-sex relations played an increasingly important and visible role in debates about public policy, the shaping of party loyalties, the appointment of judges and the electoral process.

The roots of this lay in the ‘sexual revolution’ and the loosening of established moral codes, particularly among the ‘Woodstock generation’ that came of age at the end of the 1960s. The discarding of the conventions associated with romance and courtship has been well charted in both music and words. As Richard Neville, the transnational editor of countercultural magazines such as Oz and Ink recorded:

Underground sexual morality is, in its own way, as direct as the Old Testament. If a couple like each other, they make love. Table for two, boxes of chocolates, saying it with flowers, cementing it with diamonds … seem as dated as Terry Thomas in a smoking jacket. The ancient rituals do not apply.2

The impact of the ‘sexual revolution’ was not just limited to those who had chosen to ‘turn on, tune in, and drop out’. The expressive individualism that underpinned the changes in attitudes and behaviour laid the basis for new social movements. The feminist movement put forward calls for access to contraception and abortion and, at the same time, offered a redefinition of womanhood and a critique of the family. The National Organization for Women (NOW), which became the ‘peak’ organisation within the American women’s movement, was formed in 1966 while more radical women’s liberation groups, such as those that organised the protests against the Miss America contest, began to emerge a year later.3 At the end of the decade, the gay liberation movement was established following a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich (p.14) Village bar. Although it initially campaigned against discrimination, sections of the movement shifted, during the years that followed, from the calls for rights that had defined its early days towards ‘queer politics’. Talk of equality was displaced by an increasingly vigorous critique of heterosexist structures and institutions.

Others also felt the cultural shockwaves. The suburbs, which had been mocked by Mike Nichols in his 1967 film, The Graduate, as the epicentre of surface conformity, neuroses and hidden desire, became associated in newspaper and magazine reports with ‘open marriages’ and ‘swinging’, a phenomenon captured just two years later in the film, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice. Despite the disquiet and hostility of many in the women’s movement as well as the anger of cultural conservatives, pornography became more widely available and took an increasingly explicit form. A count in the spring of 1970 revealed that there were 830 adults-only bookshops, 1,424 bookshops with adults-only sections, and 200 cinemas showing hard-core films.4 In 1970, the Presidential Commission on Obscenity and Pornography which had been established by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968 concluded that it could find no evidence of a link between pornography and harmful behaviour. While it backed laws prohibiting the sale of pornography to children, it called for an end to legal restrictions on the acquisition and use of sexually explicit materials by adults.

‘Sexual revolution’

Of course, some accounts of the ‘sexual revolution’ need to be qualified. The most popular representations of the era are shrouded in myth. Ira Reiss’s 1967 study of young people suggested that although more premarital sexual activity was taking place than there had been a generation earlier, it was largely limited to steady, monogamous and long-term relationships.5 Similarly, Tom Smith concludes that the metaphor of a sexual ‘revolution’ is a poor description and an exaggeration if applied to popular attitudes. Although there were significantly higher levels of approval for premarital sex as the 1960s and 1970s progressed, allowing unmarried couples who slept together to do it in a more open and less furtive way, attitudes towards homosexuality and, for that matter, extra-marital sexual relationships, remained firmly traditionalist.6 Once the marriage vows had been taken, an overwhelming majority felt that they should be respected. There were also important attitudinal differences between the cultural character of the metropolitan regions on the east and west coasts and the more rural American ‘heartland’.

Nonetheless, despite these caveats, the ‘sexual revolution’ had a reality insofar as it ushered in, or at the least accelerated, long-term shifts (p.15) in the character of ‘leading cultural indicators’, as William Bennett, President George H. W. Bush’s Secretary of Education and ‘drugs tsar’, was later to dub them. Illegitimacy rates rose. In 1970, 26.4 per cent of births were to unmarried mothers but twenty years later, in 1990, it was 43.8 per cent.7 During the same period, the proportion of single-parent families, as a percentage of all families, more than doubled, reaching 28.1 per cent in 1990.8 The divorce rate increased by over a third and the number of cohabiting households increased rose sixfold.9

The cultural changes of the period set the stage for a shift by the courts. The US Supreme Court, which seemed to have been captured by the liberal zeitgeist of the age, based many of its most far-reaching judgements upon a loose constructionist understanding of the Constitution. The Justices emphasised implied rights alongside those that were formally assured. They cited the spirit of the Constitution rather than the literal text. The Court was also increasingly drawn towards judicial activism. From the perspective of its more conservative and traditionalist critics, the Court was no longer showing due deference to the elected branches of government but was instead going beyond its constitutional bounds.

The Court’s 1965 ruling, Griswold v. Connecticut, had particular significance. It drew on notions of substantive due process and an implied ‘right to privacy’ in ways that would be built upon in later years.10 Griswold struck down laws preventing the sale of contraceptives to married couples. Seven years later, in a 1972 ruling, Eisenstadt v. Baird, the Court extended the right to privacy to unmarried couples by striking down a Massachusetts law that restricted the distribution of contraceptives to those who were married. As Justice William J. Brennan asserted in the majority opinion:

If the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child.11

There were nonetheless limits to the privacy rights established by Griswold and the Eisenstadt rulings. As late as 2004, twenty-four states still had laws prohibiting adultery and ten had anti-fornication statutes.12 However, in the wake of Eisenstadt, prosecutions became exceptionally rare and their constitutionality was open to question. A course had been set.

A year after Eisenstadt, in a momentous ruling that restructured judicial politics over the decades that followed, Roe v. Wade (1973) extended the right to privacy still further by declaring that, within at least the early stages of a pregnancy, there was an untrammelled right (p.16) to an abortion and at later stages, provision was liberalised. Restrictive laws were struck down.

From 1973 onwards, the number of abortions performed annually spiraled reaching 1,608,600 in 1990.13 While the Court acknowledged the constitutionality of further constraints by, for example, upholding the 1977 Hyde Amendment which prohibited the use of federal Medicaid funds for abortion, the basic principle underpinning Roe remained intact (see pages 204–5). Indeed, there were suggestions that because of the judicial tradition that courts should defer to precedent, the ruling became more firmly established with each month that passed.

The rise of the Christian right

The changes in values wrought by the ‘sexual revolution’ are however only a part of the picture. Just a few years after the crowds had gathered at Yasgur’s farm for the Woodstock festival in August 1969, the Christian right had established itself as an important constituency that could exert significant political leverage. It was a classic ‘counter-movement’ that set its face against the moral and cultural shifts of the preceding years. There can be little doubt about the extent and scale of the political consequences of these developments. Interest group activity took a more factional and intense form. Leading figures within the Christian right began to play a role in Republican Party politics. The process of nomination and confirmation to the federal courts began to be structured around particular moral and cultural concerns. Issues that had been in the background moved to the foreground. The centre of ideological gravity within the American right shifted towards social conservatism. New ‘wedge’ issues emerged that divided long-established political blocs. The discourse of campaigning and policy-making increasingly incorporated notions associated with morality, sex, sexuality, gender roles and the politics of identity.

Interest group and electoral politics

The most visible expression of the reaction against the sexual revolution was the formation of the Moral Majority in 1979. Led by the Reverend Jerry Falwell, it often seemed to speak in terms that stressed the principle of retribution. As Falwell asserted, ‘AIDS is God’s judgment of a society that does not live by His rules’.14 However, the Moral Majority had lost much of its initial élan by the mid-1980s and was formally wound up at the end of the decade.

Its place was taken by the Christian Coalition which was established in October 1989. The Coalition built upon the networks formed during (p.17) the Reverend Pat Robertson’s campaign to win the 1988 Republican presidential nomination and against a background of growing discontent with the seemingly elitist, ‘insider’ character of Washington ‘Beltway politics’ as well as increasing disenchantment with George H. W. Bush’s administration. Whereas Reagan had been regarded as steadfast, Bush appeared to have a much more pragmatic and less resolute character. Relatively few evangelicals had secured administration posts and despite the President’s periodic gestures towards evangelicals, the cultural gulf with his mainline Protestantism seemed to be growing. While the White House placed Clarence Thomas, a strict constructionist who became one of its most resolutely conservative members, on the Supreme Court bench, his appointment was overshadowed by the nomination of Judge David Souter who generally sided with the Court’s more liberal members. Hopes of rolling back earlier Supreme Court rulings, most notably Roe, remained unfulfilled.

Although Pat Robertson was the Coalition’s founder and served as president, the organisation also reflected the personality and character of the executive director, Ralph Reed. Reed, who had led the College Republicans was, despite his relative youth, an experienced operative. He quickly established himself as a leading lobbyist and one of the most influential figures within Republican circles. In a cover story, Time magazine dubbed him the ‘right hand of God’. Under Reed’s direction, the Coalition moved away from the uncompromising and sometimes vituperative declarations that had characterised the Moral Majority’s campaigning, although there were suggestions that the shift was more a matter of style than policy substance.

The November 1994 Congressional elections provided testimony to the Coalition’s growing role within the Republican Party and its electoral muscle. Forty-four of the 73 Republican House freshmen and 8 of the 11 newly elected Republican Senate freshmen were, according to the Coalition, ‘prolife, profamily’ candidates.15 They had concentrated their resources on the 45 most closely fought contests. In these, the candidate that they backed won in 30 races. This was, as John C. Green has noted, more than twice the size of the Republicans’ margin of victory in the House of Representatives. He suggests that the movement probably had a broadly similar impact in 20 Senate races and 15 gubernatorial campaigns. Furthermore, the Coalition probably had even greater influence in elections to state legislatures and local government positions and school boards. As Green notes:

School boards became a special target of movement pragmatists, since these positions offer influence over education and also develop a cadre (p.18) of potential candidates for higher office in the future. One study found that 14 per cent of school board candidates nationwide were associated with the Christian right, and many more may have been supported by the movement. One of the best known successes was in Kansas, where Christian conservatives gained control of the state board of education and removed evolution from standardised tests.16

Nor was the Christian Coalition alone. Other Christian right organisations also grew, although for the most part they had more of an ‘outsider’ status than the Coalition.17 Indeed, in some states, the Family Research Council was more active than the Coalition although instead of building grassroots chapters it often sought instead to create ties with established organisations.18 Concerned Women for America, which recruited many of its members from among Roman Catholics, was built through local Bible and prayer groups. The Traditional Values Coalition emphasised opposition to homosexuality and offered backing to those ministries that sought to persuade gays to abandon their sexual orientation. There were also state-based campaigns. In Colorado, following the passage of ordinances in Aspen, Boulder and Denver that prohibited discrimination against homosexuals in the provision of housing and jobs, campaigners sought to pass a constitutional amendment that would deny such ‘special rights’. Companies, they asserted, would be compelled to employ gays and lesbians while landlords would be forced, whatever their religious convictions, to rent accommodation to gay and lesbian couples.

Alongside these organisations, there were also spiritual campaigns that had a latent political character. Groupings such as True Love Waits and The Silver Ring Thing encouraged and promoted sexual abstinence before marriage. Promise Keepers brought evangelical men together so as to renew their commitment to Christ and their families. At its peak in 1997, a Washington DC rally attracted between 700,000 and a million people. However, Promise Keepers’ emphasis on notions of male leadership and the ways in which men had abandoned their duties by being ‘feminised’ provoked some controversy. The organization also faced serious financial difficulties and, in 1998, adopted a volunteer structure.

Patrick J. Buchanan’s bids to secure the Republican presidential nomination also brought cultural concerns to the fore. While his insurgent or ‘pitchfork’ style led to tensions with the Republican establishment, and the Christian Coalition distanced itself from his efforts, he gained 36.5 per cent of the vote in the 1992 New Hampshire primary contest, thereby denting the electoral credibility of President George H. W. Bush and contributing to his loss of the White House later in the year. In 1996, Buchanan won New Hampshire, slowing the momentum of (p.19) Senator Bob Dole’s campaign. Buchanan spoke in similar terms to the Christian right although his campaigns were also structured around a critique of globalisation and immigration. He attacked abortion, condemned the ‘raw sewage of pornography’, and made a plea for moral traditionalism. He drew on memories of his childhood in the neighbourhoods of Washington DC, the teachings of Roman Catholicism, and ‘paleoconservative’ notions of American nationhood. His 1992 national convention address, which some assert led to the alienation of moderate voters from the Republican ticket, was structured around a commitment to ‘the Judeo-Christian values and beliefs upon which this nation was built’.19 Using military metaphors and drawing parallels with the retaking of the Los Angeles neighbourhoods by the National Guard following the urban riots of April and May 1992, he spoke of a religious war for the soul of the nation. Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton were in the enemy trenches:

The agenda Clinton and Clinton would impose on America – abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat – that’s change, all right. But it is not the kind of change America wants. It is not the kind of change America needs. And it is not the kind of change we can tolerate in a nation that we still call God’s country.20

A quarter of a century after its emergence in the 1970s, the Christian right had established itself as an influential political constituency. It was embedded within Republican ranks. While the movement faced significant organisational difficulties at the end of the 1990s and during the Bush years, a survey conducted in 2000 by Campaigns and Elections based upon estimates by the movement’s supporters and opponents, suggested that Christian conservatives were regarded as being in a strong position in 18 state Republican parties. In 26 states, Christian conservatives were said to have moderate influence. This was twice the 1994 number. In 7 state Republican parties, Christian conservatives only had a weak presence, a decline from 20, 6 years earlier. And the weak category declined to seven cases, down from 20, 6 years prior.21

Judicial politics

The long-term significance of the 1973 Roe ruling by the US Supreme Court cannot be overstated. Although other countries liberalised their abortion laws, this was generally the prerogative of the legislature rather than the courts. In the US, in the wake of Roe, the locus of the abortion debate shifted to the judicial arena. Lobbying activity changed in (p.20) character. Alongside leaflets and protests, campaigning groups began to submit amicus curiae briefs to the courts on a routine basis.

The nominations process became overtly politicised and the Senate, the chamber responsible for the confirmation of presidential nominees to the federal courts, acquired an increasingly partisan character. Confirmation hearings became highly charged as pro-life and pro-choice activists sought to discredit nominees who might not have sided with them. David Brooks has described the process. Through the Roe ruling, he has argued, the Supreme Court:

set off a cycle of political viciousness and counter-viciousness that has poisoned public life ever since … Each nomination battle is more vicious than the last as the methodologies of personal destruction are perfected.22

During the 1980s, cultural conservatives hoped that President Reagan’s judicial appointments would usher in a counter-revolution that would lead to a rolling back of Roe and other ‘loose constructionist’ rulings. Despite assurances from the White House, there had been little enthusiasm for Sandra Day O’Connor, his first nominee to the Supreme Court. In September 1986, Antonin Scalia joined the bench and William Rehnquist, who had served as an Associate Justice since 1972, became Chief Justice. Then, in 1987, he nominated Robert Bork. Amid fears that Bork, a formidable thinker and jurist, would add an unyielding conservative voice to the bench and perhaps win over others, there was determined opposition to his nomination from advocacy groups and within the Senate. Bork’s role as Solicitor-General during Richard Nixon’s final months in the White House was resurrected. Although he appeared to have modified many of his earlier views when questioned by the Senate Judiciary Committee, Bork was accused of seeking the reversal of pivotal Court rulings including Brown v. Board of Education (Topeka, Kansas) which led to the desegregation of the schools and Roe v. Wade. Bork’s nomination was defeated by 58 to 42.

President George H. W. Bush’s 1991 nomination of Clarence Thomas, a black conservative who became one of the most resolute of the ‘strict constructionists’ on the Court, also met bitter opposition. Political considerations meshed together with personal issues after testimony was given to the Senate Judiciary Committee by Anita Hill, who had worked with Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She alleged sexual harassment. Despite a sustained campaign by liberal organisations, Thomas eventually won nomination but only by 52 votes to 48. While President Clinton’s two Supreme Court nominees emerged unscathed from the confirmation hearings, his nominations to the lower courts faced difficulty. Between 1996 and 2000, twenty nominees to (p.21) the circuit courts of appeal were denied hearings, or a vote, or consideration on the Senate floor.23

Issue evolution, partisanship and polarisation

The increasing visibility of cultural issues, the embedding of the Christian right within the Republican Party, and the growing fractiousness of the judicial confirmation process, went together with changes in the character of partisanship.

The US parties were traditionally broad and loose coalitions. Party beliefs and traditions were structured around social welfare provision and management of the economy. In the wake of the New Deal, the Democrats were associated with a degree of regulation and inter-ventionism as well as provision for some of those in need. Although radical conservatives such as Phyllis Schlafly asserted that the party echoed the politics of the Democrats rather than offering a choice, the Republicans were more closely tied to laissez-faire, the free market and individual self-reliance. Insofar as sexual morality had a place in the political process, it was not a Republican prerogative. Indeed, even in the mid-1980s, the Democrats still had a lead when respondents were asked about ‘traditional family values’.24 Seemingly, the bolstering of the family was associated more with the expansion of government provision than radical tax-cutting policies.

Although other issues, most notably national security, are important, today’s partisans are rather more clearly defined on the basis of moral values and faith. The development of partisan identities structured, at least in part, around moral concerns and the relocation of ‘morality’ so that it is the property of conservatism has gone hand-in-hand with growing partisanship and an increased sense of rancour and bitterness between the parties.

During the 1970s, the Democrats embraced many of the ideas and principles that were rooted in cultural liberalism. In the decades that followed, and in the wake of election defeats, the party shifted rightwards and in the 1990s tolerated Bill Clinton’s emphasis on small government, welfare reform and law and order. Nonetheless, Democratic thinking continued to draw upon identity politics and stress the rights of traditionally disadvantaged groupings. In particular, the party was tied despite small numbers of ‘pro-life’ Democrats, to abortion rights and the representation of sexual behaviour in terms of private and morally relativistic choices.

For its part, Republicanism became increasingly tied to cultural conservatism. During the 1970s, the party had included cultural liberals as well as conservatives in its ranks. Indeed, in 1972, a higher (p.22) proportion of Republicans than Democrats believed that abortion should be ‘always permitted’.25 For the remainder of the decade, more Democrats than Republicans told pollsters that abortion should be ‘never permitted’.26

The ‘takeover’ of the GOP by cultural conservatives can be largely attributed to newcomers within the Republican bloc. White southerners defected from the Democrats in the wake of civil rights reforms. Figures such as Strom Thurmond who had represented the ‘Dixiecrat’ faction within the Democratic Party became loyal Republicans. There was also a shift among traditionalist blue-collar ‘white ethnics’ (such as Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans and Polish-Americans) in cities such as Chicago who felt much more of an affinity with Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan than with those in the Democrats’ ranks who talked of minority rights and appeared to make common cause with America’s enemies. At the end of the 1970s, evangelicals joined the Republican bloc and by 1986, 69 per cent of white ‘born-again’ Christians who cast a vote, backed the Republicans.27 By the end of the 1980s, other churchgoers, particularly those who belonged to ‘mainline’ Protestant denominations such as Episcopalianism, had also began to shift towards the Republicans, although their loyalty was less pronounced than that of evangelicals and was, in part, a function of the frequency with which they attended church services. Moral concerns may have played an important part in this. Although there was, as Ted Jelen suggests, an initial reluctance, among the mainline Protestant churchgoers to join together with evangelicals, President George H. W. Bush’s formal embrace of conservative social attitudes (by, for example, backing ‘pro-life’ policies) may have made the politics of cultural traditionalism more acceptable to many of them.28 At the same time, Roman Catholics were also moving towards Republicanism although this was not, Jelen argues, correlated with moral traditionalism or the specific issues associated with it but instead seemed to be tied to growing prosperity and upward socioeconomic mobility.29

Alongside these shifts, the GOP’s adoption of cultural conservatism can also be attributed to a hardening of attitude among longtime Republicans who had always subscribed to conservative economic notions but had a more liberal approach to cultural and moral issues. As Geoffrey C. Layman records in a study of attitudes towards abortion:

the individuals who were newcomers to Republican activity in 1988 and the individuals who were active in Republican politics in both 1980 and 1988 were more pro-life than the individuals who were active in the GOP (p.23)

Table 1.1 Attitudes towards the provision of abortion ‘for any reason’ – by party identification, 1996

Party identification

Strong Democrat

Strong Republican

% Yes

56.4

30.3

% No

43.6

69.7

N

241

185

Text of question: ‘… it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion if… the woman wants it for any reason?’

Source: Adapted from The National Opinion Research Center, General Social Survey Codebook – Cumulative Datafile, ABANY – 1996 (2005), http://webapp.icpsr.umich.edu/GSS/.

in 1980 but dropped out before 1988. Moreover, within most traditions, the Republicans who were active in both 1988 and 1980 were, in the aggregate, more conservative on abortion in 1988 than they were in 1980.30

The increasing ties between partisanship and moral belief are at their clearest in surveys of opinion towards abortion, homosexuality, and the role of government in addressing moral issues. If the ‘pro-choice’ position is put in its strongest and least flexible form (‘it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion if… the woman wants it for any reason’), it was backed – according to the 1996 National Opinion Research Center (NORC) poll – by over half of those who describe themselves as ‘strong Democrats’ but by less than a third of ‘strong Republicans’ (Table 1.1).

There is also a correlation between party identification and attitudes towards homosexuality. However, as Table 1.2 suggests, the pattern is different. Although both ‘strong’ Democrats and ‘strong’ Republicans were against same-sex relationships, there is markedly more opposition and significantly less tolerance among Republicans.

The shift towards the construction of partisan identities around moral concerns went together with much broader changes in the character of the parties, particularly the Republicans. Partisanship was increasingly tied to ideology. For their part, Republican identifiers became more likely to describe themselves in right-wing terms. In 1974, just under a third of those who were ‘strong Republicans’ (32.1 per cent) defined themselves as ‘conservative’ or ‘extremely conservative’. By 2002, the figure had risen to 60 per cent.31 (p.24)

Table 1.2 Attitudes towards same-sex relationships – by party identification, 1996

Party identification

Strong Democrat

Strong Republican

% Always wrong

60.1

81.2

% Almost always wrong

4.5

2.2

% Sometimes wrong

4.9

3.9

% Not wrong at all

30.5

12.7

N

243

181

Text of question: ‘What about sexual relations between two adults of the same sex – do you think it is always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?’

Source: Adapted from The National Opinion Research Center, General Social Survey Codebook – Cumulative Datafile, HOMOSEX – 1996 (2005), http://webapp.icpsr.umich.edu/GSS/.

Activists and identifiers

The views of party activists and identifiers, particularly those who tell pollsters that they back their party ‘strongly’, are important. Firstly, they are more likely to vote. Secondly, while there are significant procedural differences between states (and, in some instances, independents and those who back the opposing party can participate), the primaries and caucuses offer party supporters the chance to participate in the nomination process and choose the parties’ candidates.32

The system of caucuses held in some states offers particular opportunities for activist participation. The votes recorded at these often protracted nominating meetings are important in themselves but caucuses are also tied to the holding of a subsequent state party convention which formally selects the presidential candidate and shapes the policy positions that will be taken by the state party’s national convention delegates. As Mark J. Rozell and Clyde Wilcox record, the statewide Republican convention in Virginia is open to any citizen who is willing to pledge support to the party’s nominees. The Christian right has just to muster a few thousand delegates and it can wield significant influence. Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition noted in 1994:

the caucus-convention process in the [Virginia] Republican Party is unusual in that it does tend to give [our] grassroots activists a greater voice than they have in primaries.33 (p.25)

Table 1.3 Republican Party convention delegates and the general population – attitudes towards selected moral and cultural issues, 2004 (%)

2004 Republican delegates

General population

Abortion should be permitted in all cases or available ‘subject to greater restrictions’

21

42

Presidential candidates should ‘discuss the role of religion’

81

48

Gays should be allowed to legally marry

3

26

Very conservative

33

13

Source: Adapted from The New York Times / CBS News, The New York Times / CBS News Poll – 2004 Republican National Delegate Survey (28 August 2004), http://falcon.arts.cornell.edu/Govt/courses/F04/2004_gop_results.pdf.

Note: Survey conducted August 3–23, N = 1,200.

Virginia is not alone. According to James W. Lamare, Jerry L. Polinard and Robert D. Wrinkle, the Texas Christian Coalition has played a major role in the Republican precinct conventions that are held at the conclusion of primary election day. They choose delegates for the county conventions which in turn select the state convention delegates. By 1994, the activism of the Coalition paid off. Over 60 per cent of the delegates and alternates who attended the state party convention were ‘social conservatives’.34

The nomination and party decision-making process also has a relatively open character at national as well as state level. Those with strong opinions are strongly represented in the state delegations (see Table 1.3).

Lobbying

Although periodically tainted by allegations of scandal, the lobbying process plays much more of a role in the US than the countries of Europe. Alongside the parties, it offers opportunities for ‘purists’, the ideologically committed campaigners and activists, to shape the process of policy formation and implementation.

All three branches of government accept and consider the views of interest and advocacy groups. In contrast with the sense of regal seclusion that characterises the judiciary and the courts in many European (p.26) countries, the US courts are open to the submission of amicus curiae briefs. When the 1992 Casey case, which considered the constitutionality of waiting periods and parental involvement laws for women and girls seeking an abortion, was under review, seventy-eight amicus briefs were submitted.35 Successive administrations, government agencies and regulatory commissions accept representations from those who are affected by particular decisions and, for that matter, those who are not directly involved.

Group activity feeds, and is fed by, the competing cable news channels. The abandonment of the ‘fairness doctrine’ in 1987 – which required balanced coverage of news issues – allowed them to flourish. The creation and growth of Fox News has provided a powerful new voice for conservative opinion. Its primetime shows such as The O’Reilly Factor and Hannity and Colmes rest on a sharply abrasive and confrontational format in which differences are magnified and the more polarised voices are heard most frequently. Representatives from the organisations that collectively constitute the Christian right such as the Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America are regularly featured. Other channels such as MSNBC and CNN have responded to the success of Fox News by adopting broadly similar formats and tilting the tone of their coverage rightwards.

The news channels are not alone. The political process has also been shaped by a new and influential generation of ‘bloggers’. In contrast with established media outlets, many blogs (internet commentaries or ‘weblogs’) have less regard for the laws of libel, or the requirement that a story should be confirmed by a number of sources, before publication. There is therefore a lower threshold before a story is brought into the public domain. Nonetheless, despite this, bloggers’ reports are picked up by the mainstream media and they thereby shape the news agenda. For example, the initial revelations about Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton appeared on The Drudge Report and in December 2002, bloggers drew attention to comments by Trent Lott, then Senate Majority Leader, that seemed to constitute a nostalgic endorsement of segregationism in the southern states. Lott subsequently resigned.

Congress

The views of the activists are not only expressed in party deliberations and through the lobbying process. They are also heard in Congress. It has become a much more polarised institution than in earlier years. Since the 1970s, there has been a dramatic decline in the number of liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats. Although the homogeneity (p.27) of the parties should not be overstated, Congressional Republicans have become more solidly conservative while most Democrats have relatively liberal or moderate views. As James P. Pfiffner records:

The number of conservative Democrats in the House has decreased from a high of 91 in 1965–66 to a low of 11 in 1995–96. In the Senate the high of 22 in the early 1960s was reduced to zero in 1995–96. Liberal Republicans similarly fell from a high of 35 in the early 1970s to a low of 1 in 1993–94 in the House and a high of 14 in 1973–74 to a low of 2 in 1995–96 in the Senate. This disappearance of the middle is a convincing demonstration of ideological polarization in Congress.36

In part, this can be attributed to the defection of the white south from the Democrats to the Republicans. In 1969, just 16 per cent of Republicans in the House of Representatives were from the southern states. By 2001, it was 37 per cent.37 The conservative character of the GOP was reinforced still further by the 1994 Republican ‘revolution’ which brought a new generation of the politically committed into both the House of Representatives and the Senate. However, other factors also contributed to the partisan divide. So far as the House of Representatives is concerned, the redistricting process plays a particular role. Because of the ways in which electoral districts are drawn, most Congressional seats are uncompetitive. Those seeking election or reelection are assured of success providing they retain the backing of their core voters and most committed constituencies. Although, as Michael Foley and John E. Owens stress, the drawing up of Congressional districts has long been informed by partisan interests, new technology and advances in polling techniques have allowed redistricting to take a much more advanced form:

now that detailed census data and sophisticated computer software are available state governors and legislatures have been able to effect gerrymanders far more ingenious than Elbridge Gerry’s original (failed) efforts in Massachusetts in 1812.38

Furthermore, as David Brady and Morris Fiorina emphasise:

In a context in which members themselves have stronger and more distinct policy preferences, where they scarcely know each other personally because every spare moment is spent fund-raising or cultivating constituents, where interest groups monitor every word a member speaks and levy harsh attacks upon the slightest deviation from group orthodoxy, where the media provide coverage in direct proportion to the negativity and conflict contained in one’s messages, where money is desperately needed and is best raised by scaring the bejesus out of people, is it any wonder that comity and courtesy are among the first casualties?39

(p.28)

Alongside the rise in partisan hostilities, the parties themselves became more cohesive. Since 1990, over half the roll-call votes in Congress have pitted a majority of one party against a majority of the other party.40 Against this background, the Christian right has had little difficulty finding backers and allies. Many in Congress, as well as campaigners, see cultural issues in absolutist terms as matters of principle. However, this has created formidable obstacles if political success is measured in terms of legislative results. As Elizabeth Anne Oldmixen has emphasised, the passage of legislation requires concessions. For much of the 1980s and 1990s, the sprit of compromise was not forthcoming. Proposed reforms were put forward so as to inflict political damage upon opponents rather than as an effort to secure reform. They were symbolic in character:

Republican leadership management of cultural issues sometimes reflects a desire to bolster their conference’s record … while forcing Democrats into the unenviable position of ‘standing up for sin’.41

During the 105th Congress (1997–99), in particular, the appropriations process, that agrees the funding for government programmes, became the locus for anti-abortion activities. Riders seeking to restrict abortion availability were frequently added to appropriations bills leading to legislative delay and the further intensification of partisan hostilities. All this, however, produced little in terms of legislative results. During Newt Gingrich’s tenure as House Speaker (1995–98), the only major cultural legislative achievement was passage of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. This defined marriage as a heterosexual institution and permitted states not to recognise same-sex marriages that might have been conducted in other jurisdictions. In a vote that reflected the political realities of the mid-1990s, it was passed overwhelmingly by both chambers and signed by President Clinton who, in a statement, emphasised that he had ‘long opposed governmental recognition of same-gender marriages’.42 Against this background, and although there was still a strong sense of commitment among many to the principles associated with moral traditionalism, some Congressional Republicans moved towards more constructive forms of governance once Gingrich left office.43

Public opinion

The process of polarisation among party identifiers and in Congress went hand-in-hand with some shifts among sections of the wider voting public. Polls showed that the Republicans were the party most closely (p.29) associated with ‘moral values’ and this provided them with a substantial electoral advantage. When survey respondents were asked, the party had a twenty-point advantage on ‘commitment to family’ and a fifteen-point advantage on ‘shares your values’.44 There were also some signs that the process of generalised polarisation that had come to divide the strong party identifiers and members of Congress was contributing to a corresponding gulf within public opinion. While the overall proportion of strong party identifiers has not risen, some other measures of partisanship suggest that for sizeable numbers, party loyalties have become more entrenched. The proportion of split-ticket voters, who back candidates from different parties at the same election has fallen since the 1970s and 1980s.45 During the protracted legal battles that followed the 2000 contest, both Democratic and Republican supporters rallied behind their respective parties. Although, traditionally, some Democratic and Republican switch sides and back the other party’s presidential nominee, 89 per cent of Democrats and 93 per cent of Republicans backed their party in 2004.46

It would be a mistake, however, to read too much into all of this or seek to apply it to contemporary cultural politics. These developments are far removed from the descriptions and vocabulary employed by the ‘culture wars’ theorists. Associated most closely with James Davidson Hunter, the culture wars thesis described the seeming polarisation of American society between progressives, who see morality in evolving and relative terms and traditionalists who think of unchanging absolutes, and the increasing passion and vigour with which the arguments were put forward. The middle ground was, Hunter suggested, falling away as society divided between the more extremist factions. Nonetheless, although moral concerns acquired much greater significance as a political issue and acted as a focus for intense and bitter interest-group activity from the late 1960s onwards, there has been relatively little evidence of the polarisation between ‘progressives’ and ‘traditionalists’ that the ‘culture wars’ thesis had foreseen. Indeed, despite the seeming importance of moral themes, and the vocal battles between the contending sides, median public opinion stood aside. This becomes evident if the most controversial moral concerns are considered in more depth.

Abortion

Attitudes towards abortion are often a function of the way in which the question is posed and the words chosen by pollsters. The words ‘allow’ and ‘forbid’ can provoke different responses. An answer can also depend upon the ‘type’ of pregnant woman that the respondent has in mind and the stage in the pregnancy at which the abortion is to be (p.30) performed.47 At the same time, substantial numbers seemingly hold ideas that activists on both sides of the divide would regard as contradictory. They agree that ‘abortion is murder’ but also accept that it ‘is a decision to be made by a woman and her doctor’.48 Although there are fluctuations, solid majorities, therefore, reject the pro-choice movement’s calls for abortion policy to rest on ‘a woman’s right to choose’. Such figures are regularly cited by ‘pro-life’ campaigners.

Although there are shifts and changes in the proportion backing the most fundamental and absolutist claims of ‘pro-life’ campaigners (‘it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion if… the woman wants it for any reason’), they are not dramatic in character (Table 1.4). The most striking feature of the statistics is the degree of consistency although, that having been said, there was small but distinct swing towards ‘pro-choice’ arguments from the late 1980s onwards and some evidence of a limited swing of the pendulum back towards the ‘pro-life’ position a decade later. However, although it would be an error to attach much importance to a single year, the 2002 figure suggests that the latter swing may have been short lived.

Table 1.4 Attitudes towards abortion, 1977–2004

Year

% yes

% no

N

1977

37.7

62.3

1,479

1980

41.1

58.9

1,406

1982

38.5

61.5

1,760

1984

38.6

61.4

1,420

1988

36.1

63.9

936

1990

43.4

56.6

877

1991

42.6

57.4

951

1993

45.3

54.7

1,010

1994

46.3

53.7

1,934

1996

45

55

1,821

1998

40.9

59.1

1,778

2000

39.9

60.1

1,768

2002

43

57

900

2004

40.3

69.7

823

Text of question: ‘… it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion if… the woman wants it for any reason?’

Source: Adapted from The National Opinion Research Center, General Social Survey Codebook – Cumulative Datafile, ABANY (2005), http://webapp.icpsr.umich.edu/GSS/.

(p.31)

Table 1.5 Attitudes towards the provision of abortion ‘… if there is a strong chance of serious defect in the baby’, 1991–98

Year

1991(%)

1998(%)

N

Always wrong

22.6

23.6

554

Almost always wrong

10.6

9.5

242

Wrong only sometimes

13.2

13.6

322

Not wrong at all

53.6

53.3

1,283

Text of question: ‘Do you personally think it is wrong or not wrong for a woman to have an abortion … If there is a strong chance of serious defect in the baby?’

Source: Adapted from The National Opinion Research Center, General Social Survey Codebook – Cumulative Datafile, ABDEFCTW (2005), http://webapp.icpsr.umich.edu/GSS/.

However, if respondents are asked to consider the abortion issue in a different and less abstract way and place the prospect of termination within particular human contexts, the numbers become rather closer. If asked whether a woman should be able to have an abortion ‘if the family has a very low income and cannot afford any more children’, only 39.1 per cent said in a 1991 survey that it was ‘always wrong’. A narrow majority (see Table 1.5), accepted that abortion was ‘not wrong at all… if there is a strong chance of serious defect in the baby?’ Overwhelming majorities, sometimes exceeding 90 per cent, accepted the need for abortion ‘if the woman’s own health is seriously endangered by the pregnancy’. In short, although there were solid minorities who regarded abortion in absolutist terms as a moral issue or a question of principle, median opinion seemed to believe that abortion should be, as President Bill Clinton was later to put it, ‘safe, legal and rare’.

Pornography

Attitudes towards pornography are also blurred. There has been a small but discernible shift in attitudes towards the legal availability of pornography since the early 1970s although the reliability and efficacy of the figures may be in doubt because the character of the ‘pornography’ that has been asked about by pollsters remained undefined. There was a fall in the proportion of respondents asserting that pornography should be legally available to everyone regardless of age (Table 1.6). They now only constitute a small handful. Although they still constitute (p.32)

Table 1.6 Attitudes towards pornography and the law, 1973–2004

% Pornography should be …

1973

1975

1980

1990

1994

1996

1998

2000

2002

2004

% Illegal to all

42.6

40.9

41.2

41.2

37.1

37.9

38.2

35.9

38.0

37.6

% Illegal under 18

48.0

48.2

52.6

53.2

59.9

58.3

58.0

60.9

56.8

58.4

% Legal

9.4

10.9

6.3

5.6

3.0

3.8

3.9

3.2

5.2

4.0

N

1,469

1,471

1,436

886

1,984

1,901

1,887

1,865

902

869

Text of question: Which of these statements comes closest to your feelings about pornography laws?'

Source: Adapted from The National Opinion Research Center, General Social Survey Codebook – Cumulative Datafile, PORNLAW (2005), http://webapp.icpsr.umich.edu/GSS/.

(p.33) a sizeable proportion of the population, there was also a small slide in the numbers of those who believe that pornography should be illegal for all. Increased numbers now believe that pornography should be permitted, providing it does not fall into the hands of those aged under eighteen.

Two further points should be made. Firstly, there were significant attitudinal differences between groupings. According to a 2000 poll, only 16 per cent of single men but 47 per cent of married men, 42 per cent of single women, and 56 per cent of married women considered sex and violence on television to be a ‘serious problem’.49 There is, therefore, both a gender gap and a marriage gap. Secondly, although two federal government commissions considered the consequences of pornography and its legal status, there does not seem to be a discernible association between their reports and public thinking. The 1970 Lockhart Commission recommended eliminating all criminal penalties for pornography except for pornographic depictions of minors or the sale of pornography to minors. In July 1986, the Meese Commission drew very different conclusions, recommending continued enforcement of laws regulating hard-core pornography, even when such material was only available to adults.

Homosexuality

Attitudes towards homosexuality followed a rather different pattern. After a long period during which about three-quarters of the population regarded same-sex relationships as ‘always wrong’, and a shortlived increase in those numbers during the latter half of the 1980s, there was, in the 1990s, a significant and sustained decline in the proportion of survey respondents who condemned gay and lesbian relationships. Although, as Table 1.7 suggests, a majority still saw homosexuality as ‘always wrong’ and only a third said that same-sex relationships were ‘not wrong at all’, the gap between the contending sides narrowed very markedly.

Opposition to homosexuality remained significantly higher among members of the evangelical churches such as the Southern Baptist Convention and within the African-American communities. This may in part be tied to the intensity and character of black religious faith. The principles associated with moral traditionalism have a strong hold. It has also been suggested that the higher incidence of HIV and AIDS within the black communities has had an impact on attitudes. There is also a small but persistent gender gap around the issue: men are more reluctant than women to accept the legitimacy of same-sex relationships. (p.34)

Table 1.7 Attitudes towards same-sex relationships, 1973–2004

Year

1973

1976

1980

1984

1988

1990

1994

1996

1998

2000

2002

2004

% Always wrong

72.7

70.1

73.3

73.3

76.8

76.3

66.5

60.4

58.0

58.8

55.0

57.5

% Almost always wrong

6.6

6.2

6.0

5.0

4.7

4.8

4.0

5.2

5.7

4.5

4.9

4.9

% Sometimes wrong

7.6

7.9

6.1

7.4

5.7

6.1

6.2

6.2

6.9

8.0

7.1

6.8

% Not wrong at all

11

15.9

14.6

14.3

12.8

12.8

23.3

28.2

29.4

28.8

33.0

30.8

N

1,448

1,426

1,397

1,412

937

872

1,884

1,784

1,753

1,697

884

843

Text of question: ‘What about sexual relations between two adults of the same sex – do you think it is always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?’

Source: Adapted from The National Opinion Research Center, General Social Survey Codebook – Cumulative Datafile, HOMOSEX (2005), http://webapp.icpsr.umich.edu/GSS/.

(p.35) Premarital sex and cohabitation

Attitudes towards premarital sex and cohabitation also liberalised markedly, particularly during the 1970s (Table 1.8). By the early 1980s, almost two-thirds of respondents said that premarital sex was ‘not wrong at all’ or was only ‘sometimes wrong’. There was however some evidence of a small rise in the numbers asserting that premarital sex was ‘always wrong’ during the latter half of the 1990s.

Extramarital sex

Nonetheless, despite these shifts and changes, attitudes towards extramarital sex remained profoundly critical. Even during the 1960s and early 1970s, the period most associated with ‘sexual liberation’, ‘wife-swapping’, and ‘swinging’, over two-thirds of those asked regarded infidelity as ‘always wrong’. A mere handful asserted that it was ‘not wrong at all’. There was, furthermore, a steady increase in the numbers condemning extramarital sexual relationships from the mid-1980s onwards (see Table 1.9). Although reports of President Clinton’s liaisons and affairs appeared to dent his approval ratings only marginally, at least if public opinion is considered in aggregate terms, covert adultery was regarded with particular opprobrium. Adrian Lyne’s 1987 film, Fatal Attraction, seemed to capture the popular mood in its depiction of the fearful consequences of personal betrayal.

Explaining the shifts

Opinion poll data suggest that attitudes either remained broadly stable between the 1970s and the end of the century or that there was a process of limited liberalisation. What variables might account for the growing tolerance of premarital sexual relationships and homosexuality? Education may be a factor. There is, as Table 1.10 illustrates, a correlation between levels of education and more liberal attitudes towards premarital sex, homosexuality, abortion, the provision of sex education in schools, and the legal availability of pornography and growing proportion of the US population has graduate qualifications.

The shift in attitudes towards homosexuality has been explained in other ways. Paul R. Brewer attaches particular importance to the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepherd, a gay student. The impact of the killing may however have been indirect, triggering ‘changes in elite signals about gay rights, which in turn could have shaped the content of media coverage’. This shifting frame prompted politicians and interest groups to adjust their strategies and was reinforced by the widespread ridicule that greeted statements by figures such as Jerry Falwell who, (p.36)

Table 1.8 Attitudes towards sex before marriage, 1972–2004

Year

1972

1974

1978

1982

1986

1990

1994

1996

1998

2000

2002

2004

% Always wrong

36.6

33.0

29.3

29.0

27.8

25.6

26.0

23.8

26.4

28.0

27.3

26.6

% Almost always wrong

11.8

12.7

11.7

8.5

8.9

11.5

10.1

9.7

9.2

8.8

8.2

9.5

% Sometimes wrong

24.3

23.6

20.3

20.0

23.0

23.0

20.4

22.6

21.0

21.4

19.9

19.4

% Not wrong at all

27.3

30.7

38.7

42.5

40.3

39.9

43.5

43.9

43.5

41.8

44.5

44.5

N

1,537

1,429

1,494

1,794

1,425

893

1,907

1,896

1,804

1,792

885

887

Text of question: 'There's been a lot of discussion about the way morals and attitudes about sex are changing in this country. If a man and woman have sex relations before marriage, do you think it is always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?'

Source: Adapted from The National Opinion Research Center, General Social Survey Codebook – Cumulative Datafile, PREMARSX (2005), http://webapp.icpsr.umich.edu/GSS/.

(p.37)

Table 1.9 Attitudes towards extramarital sex, 1973–2004

Year

1973

1976

1980

1984

1988

1990

1994

1996

1998

2000

2002

2004

% Always wrong

69.6

68.7

70.5

70.6

79.3

78.8

78.5

77.9

79.3

79.4

79.9

81.6

% Almost always wrong

14.8

15.6

15.9

18.2

13.0

12.8

12.6

15.1

12.5

10.9

13.7

11.7

% Sometimes wrong

11.6

11.5

9.9

8.9

5.6

7.0

6.6

5.2

5.8

7.1

4.3

4.8

% Not wrong at all

4.1

4.3

3.7

2.3

2.1

1.4

2.3

1.9

2.4

2.6

2.1

1.8

N

1,491

1,475

1,444

1,449

963

900

1,970

1,889

1,848

1,823

907

864

Text of question: ‘What is your opinion about a married person having sexual relations with someone other than the marriage partner – is it always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?’

Source: Adapted from The National Opinion Research Center, General Social Survey Codebook – Cumulative Datafile, XMARSEX (2005), http://webapp.icpsr.umich.edu/GSS/.

(p.38)

Table 1.10 Attitudes towards moral issues by educational attainment, 2004 (%)

LT High School

High School

Bachelor

Graduate

Sex before marriage – always wrong

39.7

27.1

21.3

21.9

Homosexuality – always wrong

75.4

63.5

45.3

26.3

Abortion should NOT be allowed ‘for any reason’

82.1

63.5

52.1

34.1

Against sex education in public schools

16.4

7.9

8.1

14.8

Pornography should be ‘illegal to all’

50.4

38.9

35.0

23.3

Source: Adapted from The National Opinion Research Center, General Social Survey Codebook – Cumulative Datafile, PREMARSX, HOMOSEX, ABANY, SEXEDUC, PORNLAW, DEGREE (2005), http://webapp.icpsr.umich.edu/GSS/.

in 1999, described ‘Tinky Winky’ from Teletubbies, the children’s television series, as a ‘gay role model’.50 Earlier media representations of gays and lesbians may have played an important role. Tom Hanks’ portrayal of an HIV and AIDS victim in Philadelphia and Ellen Degeneres’ series established gay and lesbian lifestyles within the mainstream media.

Other developments could also have had a role. The greater visibility of those who ‘came out’ may have had an ‘accelerator-multiplier’ process as increasing numbers became aware that they had a gay relative or friend. A Harris poll, conducted in 2000, found a close correlation between knowing someone who is gay or lesbian and backing for gay and lesbian policy concerns, particularly those defined as civil rights issues (Table 1.11). Over eight in ten (82 per cent) likely voters said that they knew someone who was gay or lesbian. Some 48 per cent reported that they had a family member or close personal friend who was gay or lesbian. Of those with close relationships, 74 per cent supported allowing gays to openly serve in the armed forces as compared with just 46 per cent among those who do not know anyone gay or lesbian. (p.39)

Table 1.11 Attitudes towards public policy issues and personal associations with those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender (Glbt), 2000 (%)

Total

Gay, lesbian bisexual or transgender (GLBT)

Know family member / friend (GLBT)

Know anyone GLBT

Do not know anyone GLBT

Legislation to define and increase penalties for hate crimes

81

94

85

82

74

Laws that prohibit workplace discrimination of gays and lesbians

71

94

80

74

58

Allowing gays to openly serve in the military

61

89

74

64

46

Legal recognition of same sex civil unions

43

86

60

47

22

Adoptions by gay parents

42

77

59

47

19

Source: Adapted from HarrisInteractive, Sexual Orientation and the Election: Eight in Ten Likely Voters Know Someone Who is Gay or Lesbian (2000), www.harrisinteractive.com/news/allnewsbydate.asp?NewsID=184.

Salience

There is therefore relatively thin support for the culture ‘warriors’ of either the Christian right or the new social movements, at least when specific moral issues are considered. Nonetheless, there is some evidence that significant numbers share a sense of generalised concern about American morality. Table 1.12, which is based upon Gallup polling, tracks the shifting importance – or salience – of issues (some of which are clustered together) between 1984 and 2004.

Some conclusions can be drawn.51 Although the numbers identifying abortion as the most important problem are negligible, the findings when (p.40)

Table 1.12 Issue salience – the most important problem facing the country, 1984–2001 (Gallup) (%)

Ethics, moral, family decline

Abortion

Unemployment, jobs

High cost of living, inflation, taxes

Economy (general)

Fear of war/nuclear war/international tensions

Crime, violence

Excessive government spending; federal budget deficit

February 1984

7

29

10

5

11

4

12

January 1985

2

20

11

6

27

4

18

July 1986

3

23

4

7

22

3

13

April 1987

5

13

5

10

23

3

11

September 1988

1

9

2

12

5

2

12

May 1989

5

6

3

8

2

6

7

July 1990

2

3

2

7

1

1

21

March 1991

2

8

2

24

2

2

8

March 1992

5

25

8

42

5

8

January 1993

7

22

4

35

9

13

January 1994

8

18

4

14

37

5

January 1995

6

1

15

7

10

〉0.5

27

14

May 1996

14

0

13

11

12

25

15

January 1997

9

1

6

21

23

8

April 1998

16

1

5

7

6

20

5

May 1999

18

〉0.5

4

3

3

2

17

1

March 2000

15

2

2

13

6

13

4

January 2001

13

1

4

6

7

〉0.5

9

1

Text of question: 'What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?' (Multiple responses were allowed).

Source: Adapted from Bureau of justice Statistics, Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 2003 (2003), www.albany.edu/sourcebook/pdf/t21.pdf.

(p.41) respondents are asked much more broadly about ‘ethics, moral, family decline’ are significantly different.52 Indeed, the Gallup poll suggests that if moral concerns are considered in a generalised form, they began to gain importance from about 1992–93 onwards and ranked among the most salient issues during the latter half of the decade. While this may in part be attributable to the economic upswing, which reduced the level of concern about issues such as unemployment, there were other reasons why moral concerns should acquire increasing significance. By the mid-1990s, the Christian right was taking a more structured and focused form. Although there was less of a sense of acute social crisis as the 1990s progressed, particular moral issues were attracting attention. In a May 1992 speech, Vice-President Dan Quayle pointed to ‘Murphy Brown’, a fictional television character played by Candice Bergen, who had a child outside of marriage. This Quayle stressed, downgraded the importance of established family relationships and set a poor example to others. The welfare reform debate – that often dominated the headlines – was tied to allegations that significant numbers of young women (sometimes described derogatively as ‘welfare queens’) were having illegitimate children so as to gain benefits. At the same time, debates about the right of those who were openly gay or lesbian to serve in the armed forces, the Hawaii Supreme Court’s ruling in Baehr v. Miike (1993) that marriage licences should be issued to same-sex couples unless the state could demonstrate a compelling interest in their prohibition, and Congress’s passage of the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 placed gay and lesbian issues on the agenda. Towards the end of the decade, significant numbers may have seen the Lewinsky scandal as either important in itself or as a cipher for a more generalised process of moral decay. Although Clinton’s approval ratings remained largely unaffected, some amongst these had strong and perhaps even intense feelings. This may have had electoral consequences in the 2000 presidential contest. As the election approached, about a quarter of the electorate were defined as ‘values voters’. Even though Al Gore and his vice-presidential running mate, Joseph Lieberman, were seen as men of faith and strong principles, there were serious questions about the Democrats as a party and their commitment to moral values.53 This was not only an issue for those who leaned rightwards. As Stanley Greenberg and Elaine Kamarck record, liberal and moderate voters, categories which include those who are among the Democrats’ most solid constituencies were 25 per cent more likely to vote for George W. Bush rather than Al Gore if they were among those believing that the moral climate of the country was ‘on the wrong track’.54

(p.42) Conclusion: the politics of morality

The ‘sexual revolution’ of the 1960s and 1970s and the emergence of the Christian right reshaped judicial politics, interest group activity and the character of the party system. Moral concerns such as abortion and homosexuality have become significant political issues although, when asked in specific terms about these, public opinion is moderate, nuanced and often equivocal. Few share the intensity of feeling that characterises the contending sides in the ‘culture war’. Nonetheless, having said this, the polls suggest that there was a growing sense of generalised disquiet about standards of morality as the 1990s progressed. George W. Bush’s electoral strategy, his campaign’s handling of moral issues and the character of his administration was moulded by these considerations. Chapter 2 considers the emergence, development and character of ‘W-ism’.

Notes:

(1) In some ways, the debates that followed in the wake of the ‘sexual revolution’ simply resurrected themes that have long haunted the American colonies and then the US. These are tracked in, for example, James A. Morone, Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).

(2) R. Neville, Play Power (London: Paladin, 1971), p. 58.

(3) S. Rowbotham, A Century of Women: The History of Women in Britain and the United States (London: Viking, 1997), pp. 378–80.

(4) M. Lind, tMade in Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics (New York: Basic Books, 2003), pp. 108–27.

(4) D. Allyn (2001), Make Love, Not War – The Sexual Revolution: An Unfettered History (New York: Routledge, 2001), p. 186.

(5) Allyn, Make Love, Not War, pp. 99–100.

(6) A. Sullivan (2005), ‘Dobson goes nuts’, The Daily Dish, Andrewsullivan.com (24 October 2005), www.andrewsullivan.com/index.php?dish_inc=archives/2004_10_24_dish_archive.html. The Christian right is said to have disproportionate influence among Congressional (p.10) Republicans as well as in the White House. The words of John Danforth, former Republican Senator for Missouri, an Episcopal minister and US ambassador to the UN during the latter half of 2004, have been widely cited. Writing in the New York Times while the fate of Terri Schiavo dominated the headlines, Danforth pointed to the GOP’s intervention in the case and the party’s strident opposition to both gay marriage and stem cell research. All of these, Danforth asserted, illustrated the Christian right’s stranglehold over the GOP and the disproportionate political weighting given to social issues: ‘By a series of initiatives, Republicans have transformed our party into the political arm of conservative Christians … As a senator, I worried every day about the size of the federal deficit. I did not spend a single minute worrying about the effect of gays on the institution of marriage. Today it seems to be the other way round’ (John C. Danforth (2005), ‘In the name of politics’, The New York Times, 30 March, www.nytimes.com).

(6) T. W. Smith, ‘A report: the sexual revolution?’, The Public Opinion Quarterly, 54:3 (1990), p. 419.

(8) J. K. White, The Values Divide: American Politics and Culture in Transition (New York: Chatham House, 2003), p. 170.

(8) W. J. Bennett (1999), The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators (New York: Broadway Books, 1999), p. 58.

(9) Bennett (1999), The Index, p. 65.

(10) C. Forelle, D. Bank and S. Schaefer Munoz, ‘Gay agenda is seen as a rallying point; some Democrats suggest same-sex marriage issue cost Kerry the presidency’, The Wall Street Journal (5 November 2004), p. A5.

(10) During the twentieth century onwards, the courts began to think in terms of ‘substantive due process’ as well as formal legal procedures followed by the authorities. ‘Due process’, it was said, placed limits upon the powers of government and assured the citizen of the basic rights and protections that are ‘implicit in ordered liberty’ (U.S. Supreme Court, Palko v. State of Connecticut (1937), www.constitution.org/ussc/302-319.htm). The right to privacy is, at least in part, tied to this.

(12) Italic in original: D. Frum, The right man: The surprise presidency of George W. Bush (New York:Random House, 2003), pp. 3–4.

(12) J. Turley, ‘Of lust and the law’, The Washington Post (5 September 2004), p. B01, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A62581-2004Sep4.html. In January 2005, the Virginia Supreme Court struck down the state’s laws against fornication.

(13) S. Mansfield, The Faith of George W. Bush (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 2003), p. 119.

(14) J. D. Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (New York: Basic Books, 1991), pp. 70–106.

(15) Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, ‘Religious group sees role in election outcome’, Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, 52:45 (19 November 1994), p. 3364.

(17) P. DiMaggio, J. Evans and B. Bryson, ‘Have Americans’ social attitudes become more polarised?’, The American Journal of Sociology, 102:3 (1996), pp. 734–6.

(17) I am indebted to Martin Durham (University of Wolverhampton) for the distinction between ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ organisations within the Christian right.

(18) C. Wilcox, Onward Christian Soldiers? The Religious Right in American Politics (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996), pp. 63–4.

(19) G. C. Jacobson, The Bush Presidency and the American Electorate (prepared for delivery at the conference on ‘The George W. Bush Presidency: An Early Assessment’ at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, 25–6 April 2003 (2003), p. 3.

(20) CNN.com, ‘GOP builds on House majority: Republicans consolidate control they won in 1994’, CNN.com (3 November 2004), http://us.cnn.com/2004/ALLPOLITICS/11/03/house.main/index.html. Some states, including Iowa and New Jersey have delegated the task to drawing up electoral districts to special commissions so as to avoid charges of ‘gerrymandering’. (P. S. Nivola, ‘Thinking about political polarization’, The Brookings Institution Policy Brief, 139 (January 2005), p. 7.)

(21) DiMaggio et al., ‘Have Americans’ social attitudes’ (pp. 738–9). The authors suggest that there was polarisation around the abortion issue but they stress that it would be wrong to draw generalised conclusions from this.

(21) K. H. Conger and J. C. Green, ‘Spreading out and digging in: Christian conservatives and state Republican parties’, Campaigns and Elections (February 2002), p. 59.

(23) National Election Studies, The ANES Guide to Public Opinion and Electoral Behavior – Strength of Partisanship 1952–2004 (2005), www.umich.edu/∼nes/nesguide/toptable/tab2a_3.htm. In an influential study, The Myth of the Independent Voter, which considered elections between 1952 and 1988, Bruce E. Keith and his colleagues argued that although ‘pure’ independents were electorally volatile, ‘leaners’ and ‘weak’ identifiers were, in practice, reliable voters for their party. (B. E. Keith et al., The Myth of the Independent Voter (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), pp. 65–6). Nonetheless, in mid-October 2004, two weeks before election day, 15 per cent of likely voters remained uncertain who they would support. (The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, Swing Voters Slow to Decide, Still Cross-Pressured: Follow-up Interviews Find (27 October 2004), http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=231.)

(25) M. J. Penn, ‘Myth of the vanishing swing vote’, The Washington Post (5 October 2004), p. A25, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A7256-2004Oct4.html. (p.12) Even if, as The Myth of the Independent Voter suggests, the figure for the proportion of ‘genuinely’ uncommitted voters is smaller than Penn suggests, they are still of pivotal significance when support for the parties is finely balanced.

(26) The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, Kerry Wins Debate.

(27) A. Wolfe, One Nation, After All: What Americans Really Think About God, Country, Family, Racism, Welfare, Immigration, Homosexuality, Work, The Right, The Left and Each Other (New York: Penguin, 1998).

(28) Administration policy towards federal government funding for embryonic stem-cell research was an exception to the overall trend during Bush’s first term of office. It ran counter to opinion poll trends. The focus of the book is, however, on sexual morality. Therefore, funding for embryonic stem cell research, ‘end-of-life’ issues such as the dilemmas raised by Terri Schiavo’s death and Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, and the ‘intelligent design’ debate are not directly considered.

(29) M. P. Fiorina, Culture War? The Myth of a Polarised America (New York: Pearson Longman, 2005), pp. 138–9.