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Demography and the Culture Wars

The remission of culture-war politics was one of the more notable features of the 2008 campaign. But some observers view that development as representing a potentially temporary displacement of cultural issues by concerns over the economic situation and unhappiness with George W. Bush, while others suggest something fundamental is changing in the political environment.

TDS Co-Editor Ruy Teixeira comes down decisively in the latter camp in an important new report for the Center for American Progress entitled "The Coming End of the Culture Wars." He points to demographic trends as undermining the ability of conservatives to deploy cultural issues successfully in political contests:

First, Millennials—the generation with birth years 1978 to 2000—support gay marriage, take race and gender equality as givens, are tolerant of religious and family diversity, have an open and positive attitude toward immigration, and generally display little interest in fighting over the divisive social issues of the past. The number of voting age Millennials will increase by about 4.5 million a year between now and 2018, and the number of Millennials who are eligible voters will increase by about 4 million a year....

Second, the culturally conservative white working class has been declining rapidly as a proportion of the electorate for years. Exit polls show that the proportion of white workingclass voters—scoring just 46.3 out of a 100 on the Progressive Studies Program comprehensive 10-item progressive cultural index covering topics ranging from religion, abortion, and homosexuality to race, immigration, and the family—is down 15 points since 1988, while
the proportion of far more culturally progressive white college graduate voters (53.3 on the index) is up 4 points, and the proportion of minority voters (54.7 on the index) is up 11 points....

Other demographic trends that will undermine the culture warriors include the growth of culturally progressive groups such as single women, and college-educated women and professionals, as well as increasing religious diversity. Unaffiliated or secular voters are hugely progressive on cultural issues and it is they—not white evangelical Protestants—who are the fastest-growing “religious” group in the United States.

Teixeira analyzes a wide range of cultural issues from the perspective of demographic trends, and concludes these issues are losing political salience even where public opinion is not significantly changing. On abortion, for example:

Millennials, who wish to see a smaller role for religiously motivated social views—64 percent in the PSP youth survey say “religious faith should focus more on promoting tolerance, social justice, and peace and less on opposing abortion or gay rights”—will further reduce the influence of conservative abortion views on politics. Ditto for Hispanics, whose lack of interest in voting on this basis is well documented.

The point here isn't, or isn't just, that the American population is becoming more progressive on cultural issues. It's that as cultural issues lose political punch, the incentives for conservatives to focus on them decline, further reducing the politicization of culture. And, says Teixeira, "the country will be a better place for it."