Today is the last day of our unique experiment—forecasting the five top values issues that will define the year ahead. The list, so far, includes these four: the economy, the wealth gap, health care, and the political matchup of the century.
My nomination for fifth place is the culture wars. This is a theme as well as a topic. It summarizes the politics and rhetoric of opposition. Think of Red versus Blue states, rich versus poor, pro-choice versus pro-life, liberal versus conservative, or Main Street versus Wall Street. Each side of a divide represents a set of values that are irreconcilable. Each side represents a fundamentally different vision of America.
Dividing the world in two is convenient. It makes the world simple. It makes it easy to understand. The only problem is that it’s wrong. If you want to be accurate, you can’t divide the American people into two mutually opposed categories. One reason is that Americans share a number of core values, as we’ve discussed on OurValues.org before. Our politicians may paint us divided, but we are not easily slotted into neat categories.
America is more complex than any simple divide. Consider, for example, the binary categories of pro-life and pro-choice. A large majority of Americans says the term “pro-life” applies to them, but a large majority also says the term “pro-choice” applies to them as well, according to polls by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). This “overlapping identity,” as PRRI researchers call it, occurs in every demographic group.
Similarly, topics that typically went hand in hand have uncoupled over time. Once, if you were pro-choice you also approved of same-sex marriage. If you were pro-life, you also disapproved of same-sex marriage. That’s no longer true today. In 2011, 56% of Americans said abortion should be legal in most situations, according to PRRI surveys. That’s about the same as in 1999. When it comes to same-sex marriage, however, there’s been a sea change. Only 35% approved in 1999; now, it’s a majority (53%).
Despite the facts, the culture wars is a theme that will continue throughout this election year. No matter who’s on the ticket in November, the run up to the election will feature the politics and rhetoric of a hopelessly divided nation.
What’s your conclusion at the end of our experiment?
What else should be on our list of top values topics for 2012?
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Originally published at www.OurValues.org, an online experiment in civil dialogue on American values.