Social Conservatives Are Crashing and Burning -- But Is There a Bigger Threat on the Horizon?

Social conservatism is on the wane. But it would be a big mistake to rest easy.

Here’s some good news for us all to ponder: According to Gallup, the right-wing offensive in the culture war is being turned back.  Their advantage on social issues has shrunk to a mere 4 points.

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Currently, 34% of Americans say they are conservative, 35% say moderate, and 30% say liberal on social issues.

The convergence on social issues is obviously a step in the right direction although if you were even mildly sentient the last couple of years you would have already seen that issues such as gay marriage and marijuana legalization are rapidly succumbing to the malevolent forces of toleration. The real question here is what these people consider “social issues” and what they consider “conservative, moderate and liberal.” Gallup uses self-identification for the ideological terms, which is probably fine, and that shows more people are calling themselves liberal while fewer self-identify as conservative. It would appear that the word “liberal” has finally ceased to be an epithet, at least among people who have progressive ideas.

And as for social issues, here are the examples they offer:

Americans’ increasingly liberal views on social issues are apparent in trends showing that the public is exhibiting greater support for gay marriage, legalizing marijuana, and having a baby outside of marriage, and diminished support for the death penalty.

I’d say those are all legitimately social issues, much of the change being driven by younger people who have grown up in a time of normalization of all those issues. The one glaring exception is abortion rights, which form the front lines of today’s culture wars. Gallup’s latest polling on that issue shows very little change in attitudes:

For all the fighting, no ground has been gained or lost in this battle for decades. And the influx of younger people isn’t making a difference.  So it may be premature to call the culture war over, or claim that liberals have won a big victory — this is the big one. And despite the static nature of the polling over decades, the antiabortion forces are the ones taking new territory. (And they’ve expanded that front to birth control.)

However, it’s worthwhile to take a closer look at how this trend may play itself out politically.  One would expect that Democrats, being the allegedly liberal party, will reap the benefits of this greater tolerance on social issues. And the nascent force in the GOP, the libertarians, might also expect to gain some political salience within the party if certain professional pols decide there is some electoral advantage to adopting a less hardcore approach. (The Christian right, which makes up a much larger percentage of Republican voters, may have something to say about that.)

In fact,  this trend toward “liberalism” should inexorably lead toward more liberal politics. But again, one has to wonder how the word is defined. If it’s defined strictly as a movement for social progress, then things are looking up for liberals. But if you define it more broadly in terms of economic justice then it may not be quite so clear. Take a look at that first graph again and you’ll see that the other line is economic issues, which also shows a shrinkage from the high of a 34-point advantage in 2010 down to a “mere” 21-point advantage today, so I wouldn’t start kissing random nurses in Times Square just yet …

Here’s how Gallup blithely describes it:

Conservatives maintain a healthy advantage on economic issues, so if more Americans ever do come to view themselves as economic liberals than as economic conservatives, it would not be anytime soon.

Sadly, they are probably right. The conservative economic dogma is so fully inculcated within the body politic that it’s going to be a very heavy lift to wake most people up to the fact that not only is conservative economic ideology depriving them of the security and opportunity they would otherwise have, but liberals also have to educate people that those conservative ideas aren’t actually liberal. After all, it’s all they’ve heard from their leaders, including Democrats for years.

And then there is the problem of money in politics, which is creating more incentives to adopt conservative economic policies than ever before, and you have a daunting task to get this government to enact progressive economic policies. With members of both parties basically prostrating themselves before billionaires (and the billionaires proudly calling the shots).

And that’s where the social issues come in. Just as the right has successfully used social issues to keep the GOP base from straying on economics, so too can the Democrats do this now. Gone are the days when a presidential candidate felt compelled to “Sistah Soljah” the base.  Today they need to embrace their party’s diversity and thank goodness for that.  But you can already see the contours of a new argument in which the Democratic Party holds itself out as the protector of LGBT rights, single child-rearing and perhaps gun proliferation, which are hugely important issues in the daily lives of real people. And they will promise to continue to fight the good fight on women’s rights, racism and nativism and none of those things can ever be negotiable. But they will also use that as an excuse to “compromise” on economics, sagely advising the liberal carpers that they can’t have it all — as if it’s a zero sum game between social and economic justice.  It isn’t.  They are two sides of the same coin and liberals should never separate them.

The Rev. Martin Luther King spoke to this most eloquently:

If a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.”

The principle underlying the concepts of social and economic justice are the same. And liberals are going to have to ensure that the power structure doesn’t use the one to thwart the other or neither will be truly achieved. Progress is being made and that’s a wonderful thing. But it would be a big mistake to rest easy. There’s much more to be done.

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.