During Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, the “ragin’ Cajun” hung a huge sign in campaign headquarters proclaiming: It’s the Economy, Stupid!
That approach, focusing upon economic issues, was evidently a winner at the time. Right now, despite considerable economic turmoil and growing economic unfairness (Gilded Age #2, anyone?), that sign should probably read “It’s the Culture, Stupid!”
In fact, when I read reports about the suicidal stupidity of lawmakers at both the federal and state levels, I remind myself that they are fighting a rearguard battle–that changes in the culture have been “baked in” and will sooner or later make them irrelevant.
I don’t mean to minimize the harm these self-identified “Christian soldiers” can do in the meantime, nor am I suggesting that those of us who are appalled by mean-spirited attacks on everything from trans children to accurate history should take a vacation from activism. But I do believe that cultural change will win the day, and that most people who despair–young people, especially– fail to recognize just how rapid and profound such change has been.
Those of us who are older–okay, a lot older–have seen immense shifts in our own lifetimes. When I delivered a “Last Lecture” at my university, back in 2015, I pointed out that I’d lived through the Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement, the sexual revolution, the gay rights movement and truly explosive advances in technology, communication and transportation, all of which caused big shifts in public consciousness. Each shift has been accompanied by multiple less-remarked-upon, minor changes in our everyday lives. (Today you can wear jeans pretty much everywhere, and I haven’t seen a girdle in a very long time…)
What really brought the extent of cultural change home to me was research I’ve been doing for a book I’m co-authoring with Morton Marcus, who sometimes posts (usually sardonic) comments here. Morton and I have been friends for some thirty years, and our joint effort–titled “From Property to Partner”– traces women’s progress along that path. ( The book is in the last phase of copy-editing and will be available for purchase soon, at which time I will shamelessly urge you all to buy it.)
When women emerged from “barefoot and pregnant” status, we changed a number of cultural norms, and the extent of that change has been demonstrated in the reaction to the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs.
Jennifer Rubin was one of the many pundits pleasantly surprised by the unanticipated reaction to that first-ever withdrawal of a Constitutional right.
Who could have guessed that preserving access to abortion would be such a unifying position?
Given how divided our country is, and how loud voices seeking to criminalize the procedure have become, one might not expect abortion bans to be so unpopular. Yet polling shows that support for abortion care is remarkably consistent.
A recent report from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) finds, “Just under two-thirds of Americans (64%) say that abortion should be legal in most or almost all cases,” including 68 percent of independents. Only one-third say it should be illegal in most or almost all cases. Even among Republicans, 36 percent favor legal abortion. And the percentage of the party that favors banning all or most abortions has declined from 21 to 14 percent in just over a year.
In fact, majority support for abortion access cuts across gender, racial, ethnic, educational attainment and age lines. That support also spans most religious groups. The PRRI finds, “White evangelical Protestants (27%), Jehovah’s Witnesses (27%), Latter-day Saints (32%), and Hispanic Protestants (44%) are the only major religious groups in which less than half of adherents say that abortion should be legal in most or all cases.”
Unlike the many positions that divide Americans, support for reproductive rights is not limited to residents of Blue states. In 2018–before Dobbs— there were only seven states in which fewer than half of residents wanted abortion to be legal in most or all cases: South Dakota (42%), Utah (42%), Arkansas (43%), Oklahoma (45%), Idaho (49%), Mississippi (49%), and Tennessee (49%).
I don’t have access to surveys posing similar questions back in the 1950s, but I imagine the results would have been very different. (Not that women didn’t abort back then–they just didn’t abort safely. In my high school days, I was aware of at least two deaths of girls from botched terminations–as the saying goes, the law can’t prevent abortions, it can only prevent safe abortions.)
I’m sure the magnitude of the response to Dobbs came as a shock to the inhabitants of what I think of as “holdout communities”–the bubbles populated by men (and some women) determined to cling to the verities of a bygone society. Those folks need to brace themselves, because the culture has turned sour on plenty of their other pet issues.
And ultimately, culture prevails.