Often, we become so detached from the original meaning of political catch phrases that we forget to evaluate whether or not they still have value. The past informs the present, and the term “social issues” is one of those terms, repeated ad nauseum to the point that we forget its origins. The term describes an array of controversial topics from crime to illegal immigration to gay marriage and abortion. No matter how varied the topics were, they were all rounded up into “social issues,” because conservatives found a way to make them revolve around one thing: social order.
Being “hard on crime” has always translated to comforting those suburban white voters who find poor inner city blacks threatening. Immigration makes our nation increasingly more diverse, whittling away at the political power that has long been concentrated in our majority white population. Positions opposing gay marriage and abortion are, supposedly, designed to keep the nuclear heterosexual family intact.
There is a reason why one of the men who coined the term in 1970, Richard Scammon, said social issues were issues that appeal to the average voter, who was decidedly “unyoung, unpoor and unblack.” In Scammon and Wattenburg’s book, “The Real Majority: An Extraordinary Examination of the American Electorate,” they argued that conservatives owned social issues, and if the Democratic Party intended to survive it needed to focus on issues that concerned voters in middle America.
Economic issues ruled American politics for the first half of the century, the two argued, but priorities were changing. Concern about increasing drug abuse, violence, racial tension and sexual promiscuity helped Nixon win the 1972 election by a landslide. He stood in opposition to abortion and became “hard on crime,” which appealed to blue collar voters George McGovern needed to win the election.
Fifty-seven percent of people polled by Gallup in November 1972 supported the death penalty, increasing from only 50 percent in March of 1972, suggesting that fear of crime and social disorder grew in those years, fueling a need for law and order.
The Nixon campaign’s strategy of focusing on social issues was a recipe for success that Republicans continued to use to their advantage in 1980, 1984 and 1988. In regards to abortion, Reagan helped popularize many of the talking points conservatives continue to use today. In his 1984 Louisville, Kentucky debate with Walter Mondale, Reagan established which party was on the right side, the moral side, of the issue:
“I believe that until someone can establish that the unborn child is not a living human being, then that child is already protected by the Constitution, which guarantees us life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to all of us.”
Both parties took ownership of the phrase and brought it into the popular political lexicon. But, in the near-term, that was a mistake on Democrats’ part. Because Republicans brought the term into existence, it was defined by their agenda. A debate couldn’t be had, because foundation of the conversation on social issues was founded upon what were thought to be distinctly Republican principles – The protection of the white middle class nuclear family from disorder, crime and loss of moral character.
If social issues were defined by the opposition to abortion and punishing criminals with no hope of serious rehabilitation, Democrats would continue to be on the defensive as long as the term was used, and largely, they have.
Once the economy took center stage again in 1992, Democrats’ used their command of economic issues too woo voters. Clinton tried to walk the line on abortion by stating that he was not “pro-abortion,” because he sought to make abortions rare, a tactic Obama repeated in 2008, but one that, again, cedes the conversation to Republicans and assumes Democrats must operate on their turf.
Nevertheless, social issues became a topic of conversation again when George W. Bush won reelection in 2004 and the media perpetuated the idea that “family values voters” decided the election based on one exit poll question. You know the Republicans have won the perception game when national news reporters interpret “pro-moral values” as opposing abortion and gay marriage.
It became a catch-all for any issue adversely affecting people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ people, poor people and women. After the Reagan era and the emergence of the religious right, these groups carried other connotations as well: Lazy, entitled, criminal and promiscuous. Social issues also became code for tangential issues, or issues that don’t affect white middle class America. The demographics of the U.S. hadn’t changed wildly enough to convince the press that these were anything but “niche” issues. Social issues remained second-tier for this reason, with presidential debate questions on national security and the economy taking center stage.
Journalists hadn’t considered the economic ramifications of women not having safe, affordable, or legal (in case Roe vs. Wade were overturned) access to abortion. Only four short years ago, I recall being the only person in a room full of reporters to ask a newly announced candidate for U.S. Senate where he stood on abortion or gay marriage. The pattern continued for the remainder of my reporting on U.S. Congress and Senate races that spring.
The conversation has come a long way since then. Although both Democrats and Republicans kept a safe distance from the topic of abortion and gay marriage in 2008, and continued to remain cautious in the 2010 elections, the truce didn’t last for long.
Now Democrats have reclaimed the content of the debate on these separate issues, and presented their point of the view as the moral and humane one. As a Republican-led House and many statehouses across the country continue to cater to what they believe are the fears of middle America, middle America itself is changing. Reproductive health care in its entirety is mainstream now. Having premarital sex is mainstream. Being gay is becoming more and more mainstream.
According to Gallup polls, 89 percent of Americans believe contraception is morally acceptable and 50 percent of Americans support same sex marriage in comparison to 27 percent in 1996. More than 7 million unmarried couples are living together in contrast to 450,000 in 1960. Now that the concept of morality has shifted for a large number of the population, conservatives find themselves on the wrong side of it.
The Democratic Party’s choice to invite Sandra Fluke to speak at the convention shows the degree to which Democrats have embraced social issues, especially women’s reproductive care. The White House’s slideshow, “Life of Julia,” shows Julia standing in a pharmacy, ready to buy birth control covered under the president’s health care plan. I can’t imagine either of these events happening in 2008.
As the country’s social mores continue to change, Republicans strive to maintain their last frontier, “decency,” only to find that Democrats have redefined it. Democrats have steered the discussion on these issues, separately, however, not as a pack. What were once considered background issues are now at the very forefront of the president’s, and the Democratic Party’s, agenda.
That is why I believe the term “social issues” has become useless and should be retired. We don’t rope all of these terms together now because they’re important enough to stand on their own. Democrats aren’t siphoning off these issues, trying to hide them as if they are the collective red-headed stepchildren of the party platform. For politicians of all stripes, it is finally sinking in that women are 50 percent of the population, not a niche group, Latinos are a huge voting bloc, that most Americans know at least one LGBTQ individual and the legalization of marijuana is becoming less and less controversial.
It doesn’t mean that Democrats have won ground for decades to come, or that the Republican Party’s epitaph should be written. It means that Democrats have become successful by gradually bringing these issues to the table one by one, taking control of each argument piecemeal and flipping the narrative accordingly.
Republicans have helped enormously in this regard, by raising these issues in the national news media all on their lonesome, as Democrats waited the right moment to swoop in and take advantage. The discussions began with Congress incumbents or challengers, or state legislative bodies, moving to pass laws limiting abortion and birth control at a rapid pace. Backwards comments on immigration from Mitt Romney, some during the onslaught of way too many primary debates, and others made behind closed doors, served Democrats yet again.
And most recently, a wave of politicians came out in support of gay marriage, as if they all received the same memo, shortly after the 2012 election made more cautious Democrats (and a few Republicans) see the writing on the wall. Now, as the challenges of the 2016 presidential election for both parties become clearer, Democrats have to decide if they want to erase all of the progress made in 2008 and start playing by Republican rules again, or retire the term, and idea, of social issues, and finally write their own agenda.