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Analysis: is There a Rise of Social Conservatism in America?

Younger generations are among those who are identifying more as socially conservative

Americans across “nearly all political and demographic subgroups” are identifying as more socially conservative than they did two years ago. In fact, according to a new Gallup poll, the percentage of Americans who are self-identifying as both fiscally and socially conservative is at its highest point since 2012. This includes younger generations.

Between May 1 and 24, Gallup interviewed 1,011 American adults across all 50 states. The poll asked adults to characterize their views on “social issues” at large — not specific issues like abortion or LGBTQ+ rights — as very conservative, conservative, moderate, liberal or very liberal.

“There’s some amount of confusion on those basic labels and identities,” when it comes to political ideology, Daniel A. Cox, senior fellow at American Enterprise Institute, told the Deseret News. He said that doesn’t mean data on political identity should be discounted, but it should be assessed for what it is. The results of the poll can show the public how Americans are self-identifying, but it doesn’t show granular details about people’s views.

Here’s a deeper look at the data from the poll, and some analysis of what factors could be at play in this shift.

Are Americans more socially conservative?

The data provided by Gallup shows 9% of respondents identified as very conservative; 29% as conservative; 31% as moderate; 21% as liberal; 8% as very liberal; and 2% said no opinion. This means 38% of Americans fall into the conservative or very conservative category.

That’s a 5% increase from 2022 and an 8% increase from 2021 in Americans identifying as conservative or very conservative.

The number of American adults self-identifying as liberal has decreased slightly from 2022. In 2023, 29% of Americans said they are liberal or very liberal. Last year, 34% fell into that category. The sampling error is plus or minus 4 percentage points, which is a slight shift.

Culture is introducing “an entire new ideology” that most adults haven’t agreed to, Kay Hymowitz, William E. Simon fellow at the Manhattan Institute, told the Deseret News. She believes the shift in self-identification is “backlash against the excesses of progressive gender and racial identity politics.”

Especially when it comes to children, Hymowitz said parents are “angry” that their own children are encountering gender ideology in schools and libraries. She said gender ideology relies on how a person feels and asking children how they feel will yield a variety of answers. Twenty states, including Utah, have passed legislation in the past few years that have various restrictions on cross-sex hormones, puberty blockers or gender-related surgeries for minors, according to The New York Times.

“I don’t think the country is becoming more socially conservative at all,” Cox said. “But I do think people respond to public debates on these issues that are fairly salient.” He said if the country focused less on transgender issues and abortion, the political landscape could change.

When it comes to LGBTQ+ policies, Cox said there may be “something of a blowback from all the advocacy on trans issues.” Some, “particularly those on the right,” could think businesses and policies are shifting too quickly. They could be reacting to those shifts.

“There’s additional Gallup data that just came out that shows views on the morality of same-sex relations has ticked down a bit for Democrats and dropped a lot for Republicans,” he said. But on other issues like abortion, data points a different direction. Cox said there’s increasing support for legal abortion, including when it comes to third-trimester abortion.

The public’s support is at its highest point since 1996, according to Gallup polling data. Just over half the country said it’s morally acceptable and the majority of Americans said abortion should generally be legal in the first trimester. Support for third trimester abortion has increased to 22% in 2023 from 13% in 2018.

Political independents and Democrats’ support for abortion under any circumstances has increased while Republicans’ support has decreased, Lydia Saad said in a Gallup report.

The Republican Party has experienced internal shifts in how members of the party identify themselves on social issues. In 2021, 60% of the Republican Party identified as very conservative or conservative on social issues — that’s increased to 74% of the party. Moderate social views among Republicans have decreased from 32% in 2021 to 18% in 2023. Very liberal or liberal social views have remained stable and were 7% in 2021 and are 6% in 2023, per Gallup data.

After the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot, nearly 140,000 Republicans left the party, according to The New York Times’ analysis. The number could be higher since 19 states don’t have registration by party data. The introduction of Donald Trump into the Republican Party in 2016 led to a Never Trump movement, so that could contribute to shifting views. At the same time, more than one million voters have switched their affiliation to Republican, per PBS, so it’s difficult to know if an exodus of moderate Republicans impacted the overall party significantly.

Research indicates both the Republican and Democratic parties have become more ideologically consistent, Cox said, with less ideological diversity in the parties.

Part of the shift toward self-identifying as socially conservative could be in reaction to the Democratic Party’s treatment of cultural issues, according to Ruy Teixeira, senior fellow at American Enterprise Institute.

Teixeira, who is himself a Democrat, told the Deseret News his party should focus more on economic issues rather than cultural issues. A recent Deseret News/Harris X poll found members of the working class slightly favor the Republican Party (40%) compared to the Democratic Party (36%) when it comes to which party they believe represents their interests and views.

Are shifts in working class political identification responsible?

This Deseret News/Harris X poll asked participants to self-identify as lower class, working poor, working class, lower-middle class, middle class, upper-middle class, upper class or other. Those who typically identified as working class didn’t have a college degree. Married working class respondents usually had a household income of $75,000 or less and single working class respondents usually said they made less than $50,000 annually.

Across the working class, the Deseret News/Harris X poll found they tend to favor the Republican Party views on gun control, education, immigration and criminal justice. On social issues like abortion, Diversity, equity and inclusion policies and LGBTQ+ rights, the working class favors the Republican Party view slightly more than the total population.

On the issue of abortion, the poll said the working class is evenly divided, with 36% favoring either the Democratic Party view or the Republican Party view, but across all classes, 42% favor the Democratic Party view. While overall the poll said working class leans toward the Democratic perspective on DEI and LGBTQ+ rights, more members of the working class lean toward the Republican Party view than the total population.

The poll didn’t define the Democratic Party view or the Republican Party view.

The issues the working class said were most important to them for determining their vote in 2022 were inflation (86%), taxes (86%), workers’ rights (75%) and immigration (74%). Compared to these issues, members of the working class who were polled said abortion, climate change and LGBTQ+ rights weren’t as important in determining their vote. Upper-class voters were more likely to say social issues helped determine their vote.

Another key finding from the Deseret News/Harris X poll was that a plurality of all classes, ranging from lower to upper class, think social issues are changing too quickly. It’s possible the working class slightly favoring the Republican Party could have caused the shift toward people identifying more as social conservatives.

Source: Deseret News