Taking a dive over the social issues cliff

by Marty Wiseman

Published: December 14,2012

Tags: marijuana, same-sex marriage, Social Issues

Who would have guessed at the turn of this century — a mere 12 years ago — that, today, we as a nation would have arrived at a point where a majority of citizens would favor the legalization of marijuana and the acceptance of same-sex marriage as legitimate? What are we to make of this wave of liberal attitudes?

While we were thoroughly enthralled with the epic battle between Democratic incumbent Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, it seems the world around us was changing in many other ways, as well. Virtually every news story heralding the implementation of new laws legalizing the use of marijuana and of same-sex marriages in the State of Washington cited one or more of the many public opinion polls addressing these issues. These national polls revealed that far from being a renegade state or outlier as a supporter of these social issues, Washington staters were, in fact, riding the crest of a wave of popularity when they voted for these changes in state law in the November elections. Furthermore, these polls reveal that one can also add support for a path to citizenship in immigration laws to the majority side of the ledger.

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A majority, 51 percent, of all U.S. citizens surveyed supported the legalization of marijuana.

Back to the question: What are we to make of this wave of liberal attitudes? Most polls and the pundits who comment on them seem to agree that there is a definite generational characteristic to the tilt detected in the outcomes of the respective polls. One of the most detailed of these recent studies was conducted by the highly reputable Quinnipiac University Poll from Nov. 28 through Dec. 3 of this year. When asked about their support of same-sex marriage for the first time ever those in favor of allowing such unions led 48 percent to 46 percent. Democrats supported the legalization of same-sex marriage at a 65 percent rate. On the other hand, 73 percent of Republican respondents were opposed. The younger the respondent the more likely they were to support same-sex marriage. This is a pattern that will be repeated in all cases.

Regarding legalization of marijuana, the results were strikingly similar as those for gay marriage. A majority, 51 percent, of all citizens surveyed supported the legalization of marijuana. Again, Democratic support was at the 58 percent level, while Republicans opposed legalization of marijuana by a robust 66 percent of those interviewed. Also, mirroring opinions on same-sex marriage the 18-29 age group supported marijuana legalization by an eye-opening 67 percent. In addition, the age 30-44 category supported legalization of pot at a 58 percent rate.

With regard to immigration reform, 57 percent of all people questioned said that illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay and be allowed to eventually apply for full citizenship. The same pattern for parties and age categories occurred as with the previous two questions cited above.

Two factors become fairly clearly evident from these and similar data from other polls. The older generation of citizens, i.e., those age 64 and above, find themselves joined by the Republican Party at the short end of the stick of the polling numbers on these watershed social issues. Leading conservative pundit George Will, speaking on ABC’s “This Week” news commentary program stated it most succinctly. Speaking with regard to the growing support by the public for the legalization of gay marriage Will stated, “Quite literally, the opposition to gay marriage is dying. It’s old people.” Elsewhere, a headline in the widely-read online news service The Daily Beast proclaimed, “With Pot as With Gay Marriage, Familiarity Breeds Tolerance.”

Most are familiar with the decidedly cynical old saying, “For change to occur we’re going to need a few more funerals.” Indeed, this may be the attitude possessed toward these issues by those in the younger age categories. There seems to be little doubt that the impetus for change is afoot at the level of those just acquiring the power of the ballot box. In addition to the already prominent issues related to demographics of ethnic groups, age and gender must be added to the mix.

With the Republican base being dominated by the ideas of older, white voters and with those ideas being translated into support at the ballot box, Republicans are faced with decisions on how to attract numbers of voters who may be proponents of social positions that have traditionally been quite repugnant to the GOP. For example, it seems somewhat predictable at this point that Republican policymakers will attempt to get the jump on the Democrats by supporting broad reforms in immigration laws that will indeed contain a path to citizenship.

As 2013 dawns on the other side of the fiscal cliff the battle over social issues will come clearly into view. The battle for supremacy in the 2014 “off year” elections has already begun, and both sides are counting votes.

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