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The Shifting Cultural Mainstream

Political trends are rarely as simple as they appear. The last few years have brought sweeping Democratic victories, a surge of young voters into the electorate, and rising support for gay marriage--and so it is plausible to believe that the American people have become more liberal on social issues. But in recent weeks, surveys have indicated a turn toward the right on two of the most enduring and politically consequential cultural controversies--gun control and abortion. According to the Pew Research Center, 45 percent of the people now believe that it is more important to protect gun owners' rights than to control gun ownership, up from 37 percent just a year earlier. While pro-gun gains were strongest among less educated white men, most groups contributed to the surge--college as well as high school graduates, the Midwest and West as well as the South. Increases among independents were even larger than among Republicans. Only easterners and African-Americans bucked the trend.

The abortion story is even more dramatic. The headline of a Gallup survey out May 15 read "More Americans ‘Pro-Life' than ‘Pro-Choice' for First Time." Those considering themselves pro-choice fell from 50 percent last year to 42 percent today, while the pro-life contingent increased its share from 44 to 51 percent. As recently as two years ago, twice as many Americans thought that abortion should be legal under all circumstances as believed that it should be banned altogether. Today, these groups are tied. Changes this large and sudden would be hard to believe were they not supported by two other high-quality surveys. According to Pew, Americans who believe that abortion should be legal under all or most circumstances has fallen from 54 percent last August to only 46 percent today.

Here again, as for gun rights, the breadth of the gains for the pro-life position is striking--all income and education groups, independents more the Republicans, mainline Protestants more than evangelicals. While liberal identifiers have remained rock-solid in their pro-choice stance, pro-life support has grown by ten percentage points among conservatives during the past two years, and by 15 points among moderates. The age breakdown yields the greatest surprise: Only 47 percent of 18 to 29 year-olds think that abortion should be legal under all or most circumstances versus 48 percent who take the opposite position. Indeed, they are no more likely to support abortion rights than are their boomer parents, and less likely than Gen-Xers ages 30 to 49.  The same young people who are blazing the trail of cultural change on gay issues seem to be flashing a "go slow" signal on abortion.

It's impossible to say for sure what has sparked these shifts. But the only really big change since last year is the election of Barack Obama in tandem with expanded Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate. When the Republicans were riding high, the electorate punished them for losing their balance and going too far. It's not unreasonable to conjecture that voters are sending a similar message today: We elected you to fix the economy and restore our standing abroad--not to disrupt the status quo on social issues.

Despite the country's focus on the economic crisis, these developments on the social issues front are fraught with political significance. For one, they suggest that the recent string of legislative victories for gun rights groups reflects more than inside-the-Beltway lobbying prowess. For another, they explain President Obama's abrupt about face on the Freedom of Choice Act, which would restrict the states' ability to restrict abortions. During the campaign, he told Planned Parenthood activists that the first thing he'd do as president would be to sign the Freedom of Choice Act. In his most recent press conference, by contrast, he indicated that it was not a high priority. 

No one expects Obama's Supreme Court nominee to be pro-life. And I don't mean to suggest that the social issues are the only--or even the most important--consideration the president must weigh as he makes his selection. But if he wishes to  take the edge off what could be a shrill confirmation debate and honor his pledge to bring a divided country back together, he will think twice before nominating someone with a long record of support for positions far outside the current cultural mainstream, which is less a consensus than a hard-won balance of opposing views.