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Democrats are divided on 'culture war' issues, too

- April 4, 2015

A sign at Brown Street United Methodist Church in downtown Lafayette, Ind., on Tuesday. Indiana’s Republican Gov. Mike Pence, responding to national outrage over the state’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act, said Tuesday he would “fix” it to make clear businesses cannot use the law to deny services to same-sex couples. (Nate Chute/Reuters)
Jonathan Martin in the New York Times:

The uproar set off by legislation in Indiana and Arkansas that sponsors billed as religious freedom measures not only signaled a revival of the culture wars, but also threw into stark relief the expectations and tensions in the coalitions that now make up the two major political parties.

The contrasting reactions to the proposals — Democrats united in opposition, Republicans torn by dissent — illustrates how the parties have effectively traded places.

Democrats, for decades a heterogeneous and often fractious amalgam of voters, have become overwhelmingly liberal on cultural issues like gay rights and abortion. Their belief reflects a party now dominated by a socially progressive coalition of millennials, minorities and wealthy, educated whites, many of them secular.

This is not quite right, if you look at the public opinion data.

Yes, Republicans are more divided than Democrats on basic support of same-sex marriage.  Here’s a graph from a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll:


But Democrats are actually slightly more divided than Republicans on the religious freedom measures.  In this Pew survey, Republicans split 68 percent to 28 percent in favor of allowing businesses to refuse services for same-sex couples, while Democrats split 64 percent to 33 percent in favor of requiring business to provide services to all customers.

The other problem is this mixing of same-sex marriage and abortion under the broader label “culture wars.”  (At one point, Martin throws in “race” under this label, making things even more complicated, but I won’t get into that here.)  Why shouldn’t these issues be linked together?

For one, the politics of same-sex marriage and abortion are completely different.  There is growing support for same-sex marriage, driven by generational differences.  There is no growing support for abortion (or see here), and very modest differences across generations.

Second, it is not at all clear that Republicans are more divided on abortion than are Democrats. Republicans are more unified behind the label “pro-life” than Democrats are behind the label “pro-choice.”  Democrats are slightly more unified on the question of whether abortion should be legal or illegal in “all” or “most” cases.  Republicans are more unified on the question of whether abortion should be legal through 2o weeks vs. 24 weeks of pregnancy.

Given the many nuances in public opinion about abortion, these poll questions only scratch the surface.  But it would be very surprising if, across a range of poll questions, anything emerged that suggested consensus within either party, much less a greater consensus among members of one party than of the other.

Finally, although public support for same-sex marriage will likely increase and this creates problems for the GOP in the short term, the complicated politics of abortion make the “culture war” anything but a slam dunk for Democrats.  Martin quotes Doug Solnik, who overstates the case substantially:

After a generation of Republicans using social issues as a club over the head of Democrats, they now work in Democrats’ favor.

I used the label “culture war issues” in the headline of this post to parallel the headline in the New York Times. But fundamentally it’s not a useful term.  And it’s both premature and an over-generalization to conclude that, somehow, the “culture war” favors Democrats.