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Tough Times

As Barack Obama ponders who to appoint to the Supreme Court, recent polls from Pew and Gallup are showing that Americans have become less supportive of abortion rights. In the Gallup poll, more Americans chose to call themselves "pro-life" than "pro-choice"--by 51 to 42 percent. That's the first time pro-lifers have outpolled pro-choicers since Gallup began asking this in 1995.

The political reaction to these results has been predictable. Conservatives have rejoiced; the polls, one conservative blogger announced, "may turn out to be a watershed moment for the pro-life movement." Liberals have attempted to discredit the results by questioning the sample or the questions. And some center-left commentators, like my web colleague William Galston, have warned that Obama should heed these results in making his Supreme Court choice.

Despite legitimate concerns about the samples (such as too many Republicans in the Gallup poll), I still think the polls show a genuine trend. But it is not one that Obama should worry about in gauging his own political prospects or in predicting how the public will respond to a Supreme Court choice. Though there isn't a long polling history that one can draw upon (public opinion surveys were not very trustworthy before World War II), I think you would find that during crises--such as a steep economic downturn or a war--voters have generally become more conservative on social issues.

With the fabric of their lives threatened, Americans have tended to prefer security to freedom. Prosperity nourishes social experimentation and libertinism; a steep recession makes us want to preserve and protect family, job, and community, and to restore what we think we have lost. In so far as abortion is seen by many Americans as a threat to the sanctity of the family, opposition to abortion--or simply discomfort and displeasure at the idea of abortion--would surface during economic downturns.

The clearest recent evidence comes from the period before after the September 11 terrorist attack and the recession that began about the same time. That was a period when Americans felt a heightened fear of death and of ruin. That manifested in support for George W. Bush's "global war on terror" and war in Iraq and in a burst of patriotism, but also in growing support for Republican conservative social positions, including the pro-life stance on abortion.

In February 2001--before September 11 and the downturn--pro-choicers outpolled pro-lifers by 55 to 38 percent. By May 2002, pro-choice was ahead of pro-life by only 47 to 46 percent. When the recession ended and fears of terrorist attack started to recede, support for abortion rights began to rise. By August 2005, pro-choice was polling ahead of pro-life by 54 to 38 percent.

There is a similar pattern in polls on gun rights--support for which in the United States are a barometer of social insecurity. In the Pew poll, gun control was favored over gun rights by 66 to 29 percent in March 2000; by June 2003, in the wake of September 11 and the recession, the gap had narrowed to 54 to 42 percent. By April 2007, it had widened again to 60 to 32 percent; but by this April, with the Great Recession of 2009 in full swing, it is at only 49 to 45 percent. That, again, suggests a cyclical rather than a straight-line trend in these social concerns.

But what about pre-polling past? Doesn't the period of the Great Depression--often called the "Red Decade" because of the widespread political influence of communists and socialists--present a glaring counter-example to my thesis? On the contrary, it confirms it. Because of the embrace of liberal economics and the rise of left-wing politics during the 1930s, many Americans assume that the decade itself was a time of social libertarianism. But it wasn't at all.

There is a wonderful essay on the culture of the 1930s by the late Warren Susman, a historian at Rutgers, which shows that, compared to the 1920s, the 1930s stressed commitment and conformity to group norms. People wanted to join organizations, including unions. But they didn't want to flout their individuality. The best-selling book of 1936 was Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People. There was a great stress on social adjustment, on saving families and communities. If the Roaring '20s was a time of flappers and Greenwich Village, the '30s was the time of the Works Progress Administration.

Yes, there was a political left--but as communist leader Earl Browder was fond of saying at the time, "Communism is twentieth century Americanism." To make his point about how the political left co-existed within a conservative culture, Susman quotes a leaflet from the Young Communist League during the Popular Front period:

Some people have the idea that a YCLer is political minded, that nothing outside of politics means anything. Gosh no. They have a few simple problems. There is the problem of getting good men on the baseball team this spring, of opposition from ping-pong teams, of dating girls, etc. We go to shows, parties dances and all that. In short, the YCL and its members are no different from other people except that we believe in dialectical materialism as a solution to all problems.

I laugh every time I read this quote, but Susman was making a serious point--that even left-wing organizations were drawn in by the social conservatism that gripped the country during the economic crisis of the 1930s.

I would attribute much of the current rise in pro-life sentiment to a similar kind of response to the recession. And if the recession persists, I would expect to see more indications of the kind of social conservatism--manifest, perhaps, in growing support for prayer in schools or something of that order. But I would also expect that once Americans become confident again about their economic future, pro-choice sentiment and social liberalism will re-emerge with a vengeance and lay to rest--until the next great crash--the ghosts of Phyllis Schlafly and James Dobson. In other words, the Pew and Gallup polls do not indicate a watershed--what they show is part of a predictable cycle of social attitudes.

I would also make two other points. The first is that the tilt toward pro-life sentiment doesn't necessarily imply a changed view of whether the Supreme Court should overturn Roe v. Wade. In fact, a recent CNN poll shows that Americans, by 68 to 30 percent, do not want to overturn it; the Gallup and Pew polls are thus gauging personal sentiment, not policy preferences. Americans can be expected to embrace a more conservative social ideology during this period without endorsing conservative social policies.

The second point I'd make is that, though people become personally more conservative during economic downturns, they also seem less likely during those downturns to base their support for public officials and candidates on social issues like abortion or gun rights. In the 1920s, politicians battled over prohibition; in the 1930s, there was no equivalent social issue. Americans were worried about the economy and about being drawn into a new world war.

If you look at the recent elections that took place during recessions--1982, 1992, 2002, and 2008--social issues like abortion, school prayer, or more recently gay marriage were a relatively minor factor. So while voters might be leaning more conservative on social issues during the current crisis, they are not likely to judge Obama by his stands on abortion. They will judge him by whether he succeeds in pulling us out of the recession and, secondarily, by whether he succeeds in extracting us from Iraq and Afghanistan.

That should be a warning to Republicans. If conservative Republicans (and are there any moderate Republicans left in Congress?) think that, based on the Gallup and Pew polls, they can make a big fuss about whether Obama's nominee backs Roe v. Wade, they are in for the same kind of rude awakening that they received when they wasted Congress's time agitating over the Terri Schiavo case. The fact that Americans are becoming more socially conservative during crises is to be expected. But Obama doesn't need to worry about this in choosing a Supreme Court nominee or in gauging his and the Democrats' electoral prospects.

John B. Judis is a senior editor of The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.