Gays and Growing Your Own: Why Support Shifted

Gays and Growing Your Own: Why Support Shifted

By Sean Trende - June 6, 2013

Below are the remarks I prepared for a May 29 event at the Brookings Institution titled “The Politics of Marijuana Legalization.” You can view the event here (actual remarks varied significantly from those I had prepared due to time constraints and some duplication with comments by earlier speakers). You’ll also hear comments by Bill Galton, E.J. Dionne and Anna Greenberg. The event centered around a paper written by Galston and Dionne, which found that a majority of Americans now favor the legalization of marijuana, with younger voters driving the shift.

Hello, my name is Sean Trende, and I’m the senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. I wanted to start out by thanking Brookings for having me, and especially Jonathan [Rauch] for inviting me to sit in some very prestigious company.

My mandate today is to try to paint a broader context for the truly fascinating data we’ve just heard. In particular, an important point of the Galston/Dionne paper is the support for legalization among the various age clusters: high among the young, middling with the middle-aged, low with the elderly.

The immediately obvious parallel here is with gay marriage. In 2003, less than 40 percent of Gallup’s respondents felt that gay marriages should be recognized by the state. At the same time, the writing was on the wall, because adults aged 18 to 29 supported same-sex marriage by a 61 percent to 36 percent margin.

Grim as it may be to observe, the battle over these social issues is being won in part by changing attitudes, but additionally -- and perhaps mostly -- by attrition. Older, more conservative adults are dying off, and they are being replaced by younger, relatively liberal people, although there has been movement within age cohorts as well.

But this raises the further question for the future: How do we characterize young people? Are they more liberal on social issues in general? At a superficial level, we might say “yes, obviously.” But if we dig deeper, we can contrast attitudes on gay marriage and marijuana with attitudes on some other social issues: pornography, prostitution, and abortion. We’ve seen very little movement there over the past few years. So the questions are: Why is this the case, and what can the differences between the issues teach us about the direction of political change and social issues in the future?

The difference, at least to my mind, relates to the cultural shift that Galston and Dionne describe in their paper. But even that masks the most significant issue at work here, and that is the great third rail of American political discussion: class. Simply put, gay marriage and marijuana reform are succeeding because they are now as American as apple pie, while pornography, prostitution, and abortion are still viewed with skepticism by middle-class Americans. In a strange sort of way, Americans have become more liberal on drugs and gay rights because those issues have become more conservative in their presentation.

Remember, when marijuana was first introduced into American society, it was considered a lower-class drug, brought over by Mexican laborers and supposedly indulged in by African-Americans. It was treated as a street drug; one law enforcement officer writing to [Herbert] Hoover in 1929 described it as more damaging than opium or cocaine, and influenced cultural depictions in films like “Reefer Madness,” “Marijuana: Weed With Roots in Hell,” and “Assassin of Youth.” This was the attitude that the “silent generation” and the “greatest generation” held throughout their lives and it is part of why, in Gallup’s 1979 polling, 72 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds and 84 percent of those 50 and older opposed legalization. But 18- to 29-year-olds were much more favorably inclined toward legalization. The change comes following marijuana’s journey into the counterculture in the ’60s, and those individuals’ subsequent journey to become doctors and lawyers. This shows up, too, in the following tidbit from the report: 30- to 64-year-olds were about as likely to have used marijuana as 18- to 29-year-olds (50 percent vs. 56 percent), vs. only 22 percent of those over the age of 65.

At the same time, cultural depictions of marijuana use have changed. It’s no longer counterculture hippies and African-Americans (remember whose smokes up in “Back to the Future”?) who smoke marijuana. It’s Nancy Botwin, the plucky housewife from “Weeds,” supplying the suburban wasteland. And interestingly, the arguments that really move public opinion here are those that are almost conservative in nature: legalization saves money; legalization can forestall the need for property or income taxes (on middle Americans, implicitly); legalization frees up police resources for violent criminals.

If you dig into the paper, as of today the class divide actually points the direction opposite what we’d expect to see if polling had been conducted in the 1950s and ’60s. For example, only 34 percent of those making $50,000 per year or more agree that marijuana is a gateway drug, while a 45 percent of those making $30,000-$50,000 and 39 percent of those making less than $30,000 -- which includes a large number of college students -- agreed. When asked whether marijuana laws cost more than they are worth, 78 percent of those making $100,000 or more agreed, while 69 percent of those making $49,000 or less agreed. To be sure, the most salient factor is the broad agreement, but it is still significant that the class divide we’d have expected decades ago has reversed.

The same is true of homosexuality. If you look at public attitudes toward whether homosexuality should be legal over time, they are almost shockingly flat from 1978 (43 percent) through 1996 (44 percent). Support for legalized sodomy then ticks upwards, to near two-thirds support today. Why? Part of this is the age cohort data, but again, I think this is an effect rather than a cause.

Rather, it has to do with the way the case for gay rights is made, and how middle America interacts with it. To my grandparents’ generation, homosexuality was literally unthinkable. Even for me, my earliest images of gay men were those projected by media coverage of gay pride parades and reports of ACT UP members disrupting a Catholic Mass and throwing down the Eucharist in churches. But I had closeted friends in high school that I was pretty sure were gay, and it seemed both blindingly obvious that they weren’t choosing this for themselves and deeply unfair that they could be imprisoned for their sexuality.

But in 1997, something very important happens, and it correlates directly with the increase in acceptance of gays: Ellen DeGeneres came out of the closet, beginning the transition to “Will and Grace” and to “Modern Family.” This was part of a general shift in the discussion of homosexuality. The argument was no longer “let people do what they want.” It was “hate is not a family value.” The presentation of gays in media and entertainment no longer focused on sex (often engaged in by downscale members of society; think “Deliverance” or even “Pulp Fiction”), but on love. This also coincided with a reality for many middle Americans of sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, cousins, friends and co-workers with “lifetime companions” who came to holidays, weddings, parties, and funerals. Gay rights was embedding itself with the bourgeoisie. Incidentally, this class component was evidenced early on: in 1982, 61 percent of college grads thought that homosexuality should be legal vs. 22 percent of those with grade-school educations, a larger split than that between 18- to 29-year-olds and 50+ year-olds. As with marijuana, it became accepted not because people embraced “if it feels good, do it,” but because it became associated with the middle class, rather than something “other people” do.

But on other issues, public support has remained stagnant. We aren’t becoming a nation of swingers; adultery is still considered moral by only 6 percent of the population, and polygamy is still viewed as something strange people in compounds in Utah practice. Pornography is considered moral by only 30 percent of the population, up a whole point since 2001. I’ll admit, this shocked me, as the Internet would theoretically have the effect of “normalizing” porn; you no longer have to go to seedy stores to purchase it. That said, the General Social Survey (established in 1984 by the National Opinion Research Center) reports no significant uptick in people reporting viewing porn since the ’80s, something that is almost certainly false, so perceived social desirability bias might play a role here in skewing the reporting.

Similarly, we do see a difference among age cohorts in attitudes toward legalized prostitution, but there is no apparent movement toward acceptance of legalization. The only significant attempt to put a human face on prostitution, the HBO show “Cathouse,” didn’t really scream “these people are just normal middle-class Americans,” despite some attempts to do so.

On abortion, public opinion has been at best stable. Everything comes down to question wording, but the overall attitude on abortion can probably best be summarized as grudging support for legal first-trimester abortions, with restrictions such as waiting periods and parental consent. There’s an age effect here, with younger voters more pro-choice, but that’s a constant over time; the 12-point difference in 1979 between 18- to 29-year-olds and those 50+ is the same as the gap between 18- to 29-year-olds and 50- to 64-year-olds today (who, incidentally, were 16 to 30 years old in 1979). Even underneath this is a deep uncertainty about the morality of abortion. Sarah Kliff of The Washington Post (though then at Newsweek) reported three years back that “In the NARAL focus groups, young voters flat-out disapproved of a woman's abortion, called her actions immoral, yet maintained that the government had absolutely no right to intervene.”

I think behind this continued ambivalence are two basic facts: First, the anti-abortion lobby worked to change its own face in the ’90s, in the wake of clinic bombings and, of course, ultrasounds. We’re getting the first generation of young adults for whom picture albums begin before birth. It just makes the case for abortion’s morality much more difficult than that of gay rights or marijuana, which complicates the political debate. But it’s also true that abortion rights have been framed within the abstract “rights” argument. Abortions are only advertised with euphemisms and clinics are nondescript buildings off major roads, and very few people openly admit to having had abortions, much less joke or brag about them. It still isn’t a mainstream, middle-class subject, and public opinion remains unchanged.

The bottom line here is that public attitudes on marijuana and gay rights are shifting, not because the public is becoming more liberal or libertarian. Rather it is the proponents of the issues who are changing, framing those issues in what we might call a small “c” conservative light. And indeed, on issues where that transformation has not occurred, public attitudes haven’t shifted much at all. 

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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