Sunday, March 8, 2009

Snapshot of views shows more tolerant America today

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 3/8/09

I found an interesting joint press release from CBS News and The New York Times. Released February 1, it compares selected public opinion polls from 1979 and a poll they sponsored taken in January 2009. Scholars of public opinion know that trends are more revealing than a "snapshot" so being able to compare a recent snapshot with a very similar one from 30 years ago should make good fodder for a sociological essay.

As bad as our economy is, after a summer of $4+ gas prices, a steady year long decline in the stock market, rising unemployment, and deficit spending, Americans are more optimistic about the future than 30 years ago. 46 percent in January 1979 reported believing life would be better in the future. 61percent believed the future would be better in January 2009. The pollsters noted that the recent poll was taken just as President Obama was to be inaugurated. Indeed, while the 30 year mark is compelling as a news hook, it would be interesting to see what a comparison between January 1981 and January 2009 would be with the inauguration of the undeniably optimistic and stubbornly sunny Ronald Reagan. He, too, promised change to the American people. Could Americans just be in denial?

Times were much different then, however. Interest rates in January 1979 were very high, the prime rate was better than 11%. The prime interest rate last month was about 3 percent. Unemployment was higher, though not what it was to become in 1979. For much of the 70s, stagflation was the economic policy challenge, while stimulating economic activity is the challenge today.

Despite increased optimism about the future, we think America is less powerful today than in the past. 19 percent thought America had gained in the world since 1969 but only 12 percent think America is more powerful now than 10 years ago. Undoubtedly the reality check of 9/11 revealed our vulnerabilities. We don't face foes like the Soviet Union as we did in 1979. Americans are well known for having short historical memories, we don't face "mutually assured destruction" today as we did then, but we are vulnerable today in ways we weren't then, such as greater reliance on foreign oil, a reliance on China to fund our debt, and a loss of some respect in the world due to recent foreign policies.

30 years has brought significant change in Americans’ views on homosexuality. The late seventies saw the rise of family values organizations. The Moral Majority was formed in 1979. Opposition to legal abortion, opposition to homosexual rights, and opposition to “illicit” sex, were their most significant rallying points. While this type of organization has and continues to wield significant political sway, their sway on public opinion appears to be nil. 30 years ago nearly two-thirds of Americans viewed homosexuality as wrong. In January 2009, only 41 percent did. The only age group in which a majority viewed homosexuality as wrong is those over 65 years of age. On this issue, tolerance and a more liberal view appear to be winning out.

Views on abortion have not changed either. 30 years ago, 54 percent indicated abortion should be legal under certain circumstances. That is pretty much the view since 1973 after Roe v. Wade. If there is any movement at all, it is toward a more liberal viewpoint, 28 percent last month, compared to 22 percent 30 years ago, indicated abortion should be legal under any circumstance.

Despite 20 years of Republican administrations pushing abstinence, there is virtually no change in Americans’ views on pre-marital sex. About 60 percent view it as “not wrong.” Ronald Reagan began the “war on drugs” in the 1980s. 69 percent of Americans in 1979 indicated that marijuana should not be legalized. Only 52 percent expressed that view last month.

As with any snapshot, the framing of the shot by the photographer will emphasize some things and miss others. The same is with polling. How would American’s views on immigration compare from 30 years ago? How about on issues of tax fairness? On smoking? Views on crime and punishment would be a very interesting set of snapshots to examine. Views on pornography from 30 years ago, with the growth in that industry due to internet delivery probably would reveal a more tolerant and liberalizing view I suspect. The snapshots here suggest a general move to more liberal and tolerant views, perhaps in keeping with the election of our first African American to the Presidency.

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