In 1996, 27% of Americans said they favored gay marriage. By 2006, that proportion had risen to 35%. In 2010 it was 41%. The latest poll last month showed 49%. This shift applies to every possible grouping, from the most opposed (white conservative evangelical Protestants over 65) to the most in favor (liberals under 30).
Malcolm Gladwell might call this a tipping point. Yet the idea of a “tipping point” focuses our attention on one moment, and obscures the long history of any significant change. The issue of gay rights and discrimination against gays came into public attention in 1969 in New York City. Now, 44 years later, the gradual shift in the American public’s understanding of who is gay and what it means to be gay could be reflected in a momentous reform of American law.
Such a repositioning of voter attitudes is not always reflected in the views of elected politicians. When Pat Brady, the chair of the Illinois Republican Party, urged Republican legislators in the state house in January to support gay marriage, he faced calls for his resignation. Although 100 prominent Republicans have recently signed a friend-of-the-court brief directed at the Supreme Court in favor of gay marriage, Republicans currently holding office remain nearly universally opposed.
Another issue which might have reached a different kind of tipping point is interracial marriage. In 1987, only 48% of Americans believed that it was acceptable for blacks and whites to date. That proportion has steadily risen to 83% in 2009. Increasing approval goes hand-in-hand with increasing practice. The proportion of interracial marriages among newlyweds in the U.S. more than doubled between 1980 (6.7%) and 2010 (15%). As in other shifts in social attitudes, younger Americans lead the way: 61% between 18 and 29 said that more people of different races marrying each other was a change for the better; only 28% over 65 agreed with that.
Here the tipping point is not about legality, but about acceptance. I see interracial couples much more often on television, both in regular programming and in advertisements. I am reminded of the belated appearance of African Americans in leading roles on TV in the late 1960s. The cautious, and thus conservative, people who decide what issues might negatively affect viewers have finally decided that interracial couples are part of the new normal.
News from Washington indicates that another tipping point may have been reached about immigration, after decades of acrimonious debate. Republican and Democratic politicians negotiating about how to deal with more than 10 million undocumented immigrants in America appear to be nearing a compromise, which might offer a path to citizenship. Here the political shift closely follows the public shift in attitudes. In 1994, 63% said that immigrants were a burden because they take jobs and health care, while only 31% said they strengthened the US. A survey last month showed the reverse: 49% said immigrants strengthen us, while only 41% said they were a burden.
Unlike their stance on gay marriage, Republicans in Congress perceive clear electoral liabilities in their anti-immigrant rhetoric. President Obama won 71% of the Hispanic vote, which is 10% of the electorate and growing.
I did not pick these three issues randomly: I was looking for places where American attitudes had been moving toward a new consensus. On other politically important issues, Americans have not changed their minds. The proportions who say abortion should be legal under any circumstances (about 25-30%), legal under some circumstances (about 50%), and illegal in all circumstances (15-20%) have not changed since the 1970s.
The shifts away from conservative positions on gay and interracial marriage and immigration signal the decline in the attractiveness of major elements in traditional Republican ideology. In all three cases, young voters lead the way in opposing positions taken by Republican politicians. Barring some unlikely reversal of attitudes, such a conservative platform will turn away more and more voters in the future.
The key to this moment is the increasing disconnect between the official line of the Republican Party and the center of American politics. That divergence has been developing for decades, too. On key issues, the American public has become more liberal, while Republicans at the national level have become more conservative. The polls I cited above also measure party affiliation. Over the past two decades, respondents who identified as Republicans fell from nearly 30% to under 25% in 2012, with corresponding gains among Independents. That small displacement is enough to lose elections.
Since they lost in November, Republican politicians have begun to discuss the possibility that their platform is a losing proposition. That’s the bigger tipping point. The Republican Party is threatened with irrelevancy, because its ideology is shared by fewer and fewer Americans. Between now and the next election, we may see a historic shift in the Republican platform.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, April 2, 2013