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On social issues, America edges steadily left

The tendency among Americans to be more conservative on social issues is shifting, mainly because of changing attitudes among Democrats and younger people.

Along the left-right spectrum on social and economic issues, Americans have traditionally tended to be a bit more conservative – certainly compared to the European countries to which they trace their ancestry. Not exactly “puritanical,” most of us, but with traces of that historical influence.

That appears to be changing, however, according to recent surveys.

Just since 2010, Gallup finds, the conservative advantage on economic issues has dropped from 36 percent down to 21 percent. On social issues, the decline over the same period looks more precipitous: from 17 percent to just four percent.

“Conservatism is still the dominant ideology in the US when Americans are asked to describe their political views overall and when asked about their views on economic and social issues separately,” Gallup reported recently. “However, the conservative advantages are shrinking, in large part because of Democrats’ increasing likelihood of describing their views as liberal rather than conservative or moderate.”

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In other words, party affiliation and the current state of political affairs – partisan to the point of divisiveness – are part of the picture. But demographics (younger generations coming along) and the rise of libertarianism are too.

Looking ahead, Gallup predicts: “With the conservative advantage on social issues down to four points, it is possible in the next few years there will be more Americans describing themselves as socially liberal than as socially conservative. This movement is consistent with trends Gallup has seen on specific issues, perhaps most notably Americans’ views toward gay rights and legalizing marijuana…. The ideological trends are clearly heading in a more liberal direction….”

Specifically, Gallup also looks at the public perception of “moral acceptability” regarding key indicators.

“The American public has become more tolerant on a number of moral issues, including premarital sex, embryonic stem cell research, and euthanasia,” Gallup reported in last month. “On a list of 19 major moral issues of the day, Americans express levels of moral acceptance that are as high or higher than in the past on 12 of them, a group that also encompasses social mores such as polygamy, having a child out of wedlock, and divorce.”

Here are the percentages of those viewing certain issues as “highly” or “largely acceptable:

Birth control, 90 percent; divorce, 69 percent; sex between an unmarried man and woman, 66 percent; medical research using stem cells obtained from human embryos, 65 percent; having a baby outside of marriage, 58 percent; gay or lesbian relations, 58 percent.

For all of those, the acceptability ratings are at or near a record high.

Again, party affiliation and generational differences help explain the trend.

Since 2001, when these questions were first asked, Republicans have become “slightly more accepting” of divorce, unmarried sex, and gay and lesbian relations. Democrats, meanwhile, have become “significantly more tolerant” regarding such issues.

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In any case, Gallup concludes, “Deep divisions exist among Americans, and clashes over the moral acceptance of certain issues will more than likely continue in the years to come.”