Every topic discussed in election cycles can be broken down into one of three categories: economic issues, foreign policy issues, or social issues. While many of these will inevitably overlap, the fundamental “elements” are always present within political stories of any kind. However, the three topics vary in intensity of emotions they elicit. Economic issues, while arguably the most important of the elements, are abstract and complicated to a degree where most of the electorate, although they will have opinions, do not fully understand them. For a clear illustration of this, view my previous post about national debt. Foreign policy, especially in the age of American predominance on the international stage, also carries significant political weight; although this is tempered by a certain degree of unity within the American populace. While differing ideologies certainly vary on priorities, there is a certain sense of unification “at the water’s edge.” Social issues are a completely different story.
Social issues divide American society far more than anything else. Often referred to as a “culture war,” a phrase popularized by Pat Buchanan at the 1992 Republican National Convention, liberals and conservatives fiercely and fierily contest each other over topics often associated with religion and family values. It is likely for this reason that we see what I believe is an interesting trend: the social issues discussed in this election season, for the most part only in Congressional races, as the presidential campaign has focused on economic issues primarily, are in no means new. In fact, American society has been struggling over the same societal problems for the past three decades, at least.
One of these issues appears as though it could be lurching to the finality. Recently the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional. This law has been the primary institutional roadblock to equal rights for the homosexual population of the United States. The gay movement currently focuses on marriage rights and the spousal rights which come along with them, and the right to adopt children, but by no means are these new struggles. Gay Americans were discriminated against most notably in the past two decades by the military’s unofficial Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, which came into effect under President Clinton and ended under current President Obama.
Most historians pin the start-date of the gay rights movement at 1969, when the Stonewall riots launched the issue into the national spotlight. Since then, the movement has slowly chipped away at the discriminatory establishment in the United States. Statutes which permitted employers to fire homosexual individuals without cause have fallen, laws which prohibit sexual acts between homosexuals have been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, and the public stigma of homosexuality has largely diminished. While it likely will take several more years to reach completion, the finish line for gay rights is at the very least within eyesight.
While the forty-odd years that the gay rights movement has existed may seem like a long time, the women’s rights movement is over a century and a half old. Commonly considered to have begun at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, this movement is similar to that of the gay rights movement. Have been many different facets which the movement has sought to obtain; suffrage, property rights, ability to hold public office, equal pay, and reproductive rights are just some of the goals the Feminist movement has sought. While suffrage, property rights, and the ability to hold public office have all been resolved, the latter two continue to elude many women.
While this may seem contradictory, equal pay for women is one of the few non-economic domestic issues which has come up in this presidential election, thanks to a question in the town hall style debate. Women, according to the National Women’s Law Center, on average make only 77 cents to every dollar that a man makes, despite the 1963 Equal Pay Act which required employers to pay all workers the same regardless of gender. While many bills have been proposed in Congress to rectify the income gap, none have passed. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which President Obama has been championing his signing of, does nothing to close the gap; instead, it simply gives women workers more time to file a wage-discrimination suit against their employer. While nearly all proponents of a social issue believe that their viewpoint is unquestionably the correct one, equal pay for women is the only one for which there is not a single credible argument against. There is no conceivable way a right-thinking individual can believe that women do not deserve equal pay.
The other women’s issue, however, is much more heated and debatable. The reproductive rights of women, particularly abortion, are arguably the most passionate social debate which our nation has experienced since the African-American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. I say this because, unlike the other issues discussed in this post, abortion directly involves death. I am not going to discuss Roe v. Wade here, lest I accidentally end up writing a book instead of a blog post, but I would like to start a few years prior to the seminal court case on the issue. Before the Supreme Court took the issue, thirty states banned abortion in every scenario while only four (Alaska, Hawaii, New York, and Washington) permitted it simply upon request. What is interesting about this data is that seven of the sixteen states which allowed exceptions to the abortion ban were southern states, typically more conservative (Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas). While these states once allowed abortions, they now all have received grades ranging from “D+” to “F” by the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws. The grades reflect how hostilely the state treats those who seek an abortion.
In Roe the Court held that some abortion bans were unconstitutional, but some were legal, creating what in affect is a non-ruling on the issue. Despite this, the evangelical wing of the Republican Party, the wing which essentially runs the party at the present, took up arms against abortion, claiming it violated the sanctity of life. The argument is not particularly hard to agree with, as abortion is unquestionably the removal of the capacity to life from a fetus before it is rightfully born. However, the fringe element of the evangelical faction of the Republican Party has taken an extremist opposition to abortion, going so far as murdering abortion doctors and bombing abortion clinics. There is not even the slightest sense of justification for such actions which can almost undeniably be termed as terrorism. The radical anti-abortion organizations conduct themselves no better than the Ku Klux Klan did during the 1960s African-American Civil Rights Movement. While the violence has slowed down a bit since the 90s, the debate itself is as alive as ever. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has vowed to appoint justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade and eliminate public funding for Planned Parenthood, a maternal healthcare provider which happens to conduct some abortions, should he win the election.
While these two movements have been on the national agenda for decades, this is by no means a new trend. Social issues in America have always been divisive because they often involve religious beliefs or deeply held person ideologies. There are two crystal clear examples of this in American history: slavery, along with the later civil rights movement, and the temperance movement.
Slavery is unquestionably the most heinous social wrong that the United States has ever committed, as well as the social issue which invoked the most passionate argument. Slavery was the cause of the Civil War, plain and simple. You may hear that the true cause was states’ rights versus national policy norming, but the topic at issue between the states and the national government was slavery. Nearly every intellectual knew that slavery was so divisive the only way it could be resolved was through a war; it was for that reason the Founding Fathers prohibited Thomas Jefferson from including anti-slavery statements in the Declaration of Independence and allowed for the inclusion for the Three-Fifths Compromise in the Constitution.
The debate over slavery continued until 1865, where in the aftermath of the Union’s victory in the Civil War, Congress passed the 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery once and for all in the newly “re-United States.” After approximately ninety years, the nation had overcome its first substantial social issue debate. The victory was short-lived, however, for instantly the South, as well as many northern states and cities, began to discriminate against the newly freed slaves and their progeny. This issue, while never spilling out into a war, divided the country for a century and cost the lives of many activists and innocent citizens.
The temperance movement also has its roots in the pre-independence days. Long held as a Christian virtue, the Massachusetts colonial assembly banned the consumption of liquor in 1657. The first truly organized group to espouse the temperance position was the American Temperance Society, which was formed in 1827. The Society reached a membership of 1.5 million in 1835, an astonishing number when one considers the American population at the time was just over 12 million. To put that rate of membership into perspective, if the Sierra Club, an environmentalist group, had that rate of membership today, nearly 44 million Americans would be members.
The temperance movement followed the ebb and flow of American society throughout the nineteenth century, dropping in popularity in times of crisis such as the Civil War, but increasing in peacetime. Finally, the movement came to a head with Congress’ passage of the Volstead Act in 1919. The act gave the government the ability to enforce the 18th Amendment, prohibiting the sale and possession of alcohol in any form. Once again, a social issue nearly an entire century old came to a closer; or would have, if Prohibition was sustainable, which it was not. When the American people passed the 21st Amendment, bringing the “noble experiment” to a close, the temperance movement ended as well, although not the way its proponents would have preferred.
Due to the personal and religious lines that social issues cross, the speed of policy change is not fast. Instead, we often see a generational shift in views on such policies, as each passing generation usually results in a slightly more liberal outlook. Whereas sixty years ago the gender roles were strictly rigid, such assignments have largely faded in favor of a more egalitarian perspective. This is not to suggest that Father Time is the only individual capable of effecting social change, but to simply state that time is a key factor in any social issue campaign.While social issues have deferred to economic matters in this presidential campaign, regardless of which political party takes the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives, these topics will surely come up in the coming four years.