Social Conservatism on the Rise

By Alex Chediak Published on June 14, 2023

“The culture wars are dominating politics” intoned Chuck Todd on NBC’s Meet the Press. That was April 30, a few weeks after the Bud Light saga broke and just prior to the Target boycott of late May over pride apparel displayed front-and-center and marketed to children.

New Gallup data shows that social conservatism is on the rise, snapping decidedly upwards since 2021.

More Americans in 2023 (38%) say they are very conservative or conservative on social issues than said so in 2022 (33%) or 2021 (30%). Consistent with this trend, the percentage of Americans who say their social views are very liberal or liberal has dropped to 29% from 34% since 2021.

It’s probably not a coincidence that 2021 was when Glenn Youngkin surprisingly and suddenly rose to beat Clinton confidant Terry McAuliffe in Virginia’s gubernatorial election. The key issue in that race was education, particularly what role parents could play in curricular issues like the teaching of critical race theory. There was also the parent who expressed fury at a school board meeting over his daughter being assaulted in a restroom by a male student who claimed to identify as a woman. It didn’t help that the school tried to cover up the crime.

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But what does this trend mean heading into the 2024 election cycle? We hear Trump and DeSantis trading barbs over wokeness and whether it can be defined. And what should we make of GOP leaders who seem embarrassed by the social issues? To answer these questions, let’s first dig into the trends a bit.

Independents and Young Adults, Too

The key to winning elections, typically, is Independents. I say typically because you need to get out your base too. Romney failed to do that in 2012. While Romney won Independents, Obama beat him handily — in a landslide compared to the last two elections. More on that in a bit.

The recent boost in conservative self-identity on social issues is happening among Republicans, as you’d expect. But it’s also happening among Independents:

It’s not happening among Democrats. Data like this may lead folks like former House Speaker Paul Ryan to say, as he said just this week on CBS Mornings, that culture war issues play better in primaries than general elections.

I appreciate Ryan’s fiscal conservatism — his concern about entitlement spending and our national debt — but he’s dead wrong here. Think for a moment about President Trump’s 2016 victory over Secretary Clinton. Remember that debate where Trump hammered Clinton on abortion, a topic many leaders tiptoe around? Some thought he went too far. But with Roe v. Wade in the balance, and concern over Supreme Court overreach on issues like same-sex marriage (Obergefell), Trump would go on to beat Clinton. Access Hollywood recording notwithstanding.

But what about young voters? Surely, they aren’t moving towards social conservatism, are they? In fact, they are. All age groups are. Except the elderly, who are already there.

The biggest increase is in a large swath of highly reliable voters: Those aged 30-64.

The “Culture War” Has Many Fronts

The culture wars seem to cover a wider range of issues than in the past. Traditionally, it’s been abortion and same-sex marriage. Now, it extends to critical race theory in the classroom. Or in mandatory corporate training. Or to the idea that gender is a social construct and that we can choose our preferred pronouns, as if our beliefs have power to change physical and biological reality. Or to cringeworthy corporate endorsements of pride month. The list goes on.

That’s one of the reasons Republicans avoid these matters at their peril. Talk about income tax rates all you want. At the end of the day, 4 in 10 Americans don’t pay them. Want to win back the suburban moms? Talk about inflation and the economy, yes. But talk also how their children are being indoctrinated in public schools while academic rigor and objective grading standards are falling out of fashion. Talk about how the LBGTQ+ movement has gone too far.

GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley is smart to call transgender athletes in sports “the women’s issue of our time.” Almost 70% of Americans now believe that transgender athletes should only be allowed to compete on sports teams that conform with their birth gender — a steady uptick over the last two years.

Almost two-thirds of Americans (64%) who personally know a transgender person still think transgender athletes should only play on teams that match their God-given assigned sex.

The trend is bipartisan:

Go Big or Go Home

Bottom line, social conservatism is growing. Perhaps a reaction to the progressive movement extending its tentacles into every facet of life, as we see with the T now leading the LBGT. People increasingly have an innate sense that it’s just too much, but they’re not sure what, if anything, they can do about it. The other side seems to control the commanding heights of society.

Political leaders need not be timid on these matters. At its root, wokeness is a war against truth, as Governor DeSantis recently put it. Social conservatism is anti-woke. So, there’s an antithesis here. We’re talking about two competing visions of reality. Might as well lean into it. Go big or go home.

 

Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor and the author of Thriving at College (Tyndale House, 2011), a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at www.alexchediak.com or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).

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