Liberals are continuing to get the better of conservatives on a range of long-running moral debates, according to a new Gallup survey:
Americans continue to express an increasingly liberal outlook on what is morally acceptable, as their views on 10 of 19 moral issues that Gallup measures are the most left-leaning or permissive they have been to date. The percentages of U.S. adults who believe birth control, divorce, sex between unmarried people, gay or lesbian relations, having a baby outside of marriage, doctor-assisted suicide, pornography and polygamy are morally acceptable practices have tied record highs or set new ones this year.
Sometime during the late Obama years—and especially after the Supreme Court same-sex marriage ruling in Obergefell—commentators (on both sides) began to say with increasing frequency that the culture wars were over and that the liberal side had won. The new Gallup poll shows that, for better or worse, there is a good deal of truth to this. James Davison Hunter’s authoritative 1992 book on the culture wars described a battle between the religiously orthodox, who prioritized Biblical teachings and natural law, and secular progressivists, whose lodestar was reason and utilitarianism. While tens of millions of Americans still adhere to the moral vision that defined the cultural right in the latter half of the 20th century, the progressivists, aided by the decline of institutional religion, have steadily gained ground on most questions related to sex and the family.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that cultural politics is over—far from it. It just means that the key issues defining the culture war, and the coalitions fighting it, will evolve. We have already seen political correctness—or the increasingly pitched struggle over what kind of social sanctions should be attached to offensive speech—take center stage, with the “right” taking the position of the rebellious counterculture and the “left” arguing for stricter limits on expression. While debates over the morality of same-sex relationships are essentially moot, journalists and academics and policymakers are now debating different kinds of sexual conduct, like affirmative consent and catcalling. And as Peter Beinart has argued, the decline of the religiously-animated conflicts that characterized the old culture wars has brought various forms of ethnic tribalism to the fore in new and unsettling ways.
The liberal coalition has probably won what Pat Buchanan famously called “the war for the soul of America” that was inaugurated by the 1960s and 1970s social movements. But another war is coming. And we don’t yet quite know what it will look like, much less which side will win.