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The Culture War and Issue Salience: An Analysis of American Sentiment on Traditional Moral Issues


Despite much talk of a culture war, scholars continue to argue over whether the American public is divided on cultural and social issues. Some of the most prominent work in this area, such as Fiorina's Culture War?, has rejected the idea. However, this work has in turn been criticized for focussing only on the distribution of attitudes within the American public and ignoring the possibility that the culture war may also be driven by the increasing strength with which sections of the population hold their opinions. This paper tests the strength, or saliency, hypothesis using individual-level over-time data and nonlinear regression. It finds (1) that there was a steady and significant increase in concern about traditional moral issues between the early 1980s and 2000, but (2) that the over-time increase was driven by an upward and equal shift in the importance attached to traditional moral issues by Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, evangelicals and non-evangelicals, and frequent and infrequent worshippers alike. While the first finding offers support for the saliency hypothesis and the culture war thesis, the second challenges the idea that Americans are engaged in a war over culture. Both findings enhance but also complicate our theoretical understanding of the culture war, and have important real-world consequences for American politics.

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1 For comprehensive reviews of this literature see Layman, Geoffrey C., Carsey, Thomas M. and Horowitz, Juliana Menasce, “Party Polarization in American Politics: Characteristics, Causes, and Consequences,” Annual Review of Political Science, 9 (2006), 83110; and Hetherington, Marc J., “Putting Polarization in Perspective,” British Journal of Political Science, 39 (2009), 413–48.

2 See, respectively, Nivola, Pietro S. and Brady, David W., eds., Red and Blue Nation? Characteristics and Causes of America's Polarized Politics (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2006); Layman, Geoffrey, The Great Divide: Religious and Cultural Conflict in American Party Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001); White, John, The Values Divide: American Politics and Culture in Transition (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2003); Sabato, Larry, Divided States of America: The Slash and Burn Politics of the 2004 Presidential Election (New York: Pearson Longman, 2006); and Hunter, James Davison, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (New York: Basic Books, 1991).

3 Abramowitz, Alan and Saunders, Kyle L., “Is Polarization a Myth?”, Journal of Politics, 70 (2008), 542–55, 554.

4 DiMaggio, Paul, Evans, John and Bryson, Bethany, “Have Americans' Social Attitudes Become More Polarized?”, American Journal of Sociology, 102 (1996), 690755; Evans, John H., “Have Americans' Attitudes Become More Polarized? An Update,” Social Science Quarterly, 84 (2003), 7190; Fiorina, Morris P., Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America (New York: Pearson Longman, 2005); and Fiorina, Morris P. and Abrams, Samuel J., “Political Polarization in the American Public,” Annual Review of Political Science, 11 (2008), 563–88.

5 Fiorina, 7–8, 95.

6 Abramovitz and Saunders, 554.

7 It is also possible to think about polarization as a state (measured by the level of polarization at a point in time), but there is no agreed consensus on how big gaps in attitudes have to be for society to be considered polarized at any given time (see Hetherington on this point).

8 DiMaggio, Evans and Bryson, 740; emphasis of “observed” original, of “intensity” added.

9 Hetherington, 434. Interestingly, the contemporary salience of gay rights, while low compared to civil rights in the 1960s, is growing at a time when the mean of public opinion is becoming more liberal and the distance between Democrats and Republicans is narrowing slightly. Hetherington points out that Fiorina, DiMaggio and their co-authors would interpret this ideological convergence as evidence against the culture war thesis, but the accompanying liberalization in opinion may have facilitated interparty conflict on gay rights and increased the overall salience of the issue. The reason is that gay rights were previously so unpopular that neither party stood to benefit politically from supporting them; only as opinion moderated did party positions polarize, opinions become more intensely held, and the issue's salience increase.

10 Hunter, passim.

11 Cantril, Henry, “The Intensity of an Attitude,” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 41 (1946), 129–35.

12 See Hetherington; Min, Young, Ghanem, Salma I. and Evatt, Dixie, “Using a Split-Ballot Survey to Explore the Robustness of the ‘MIP’ Question in Agenda-Setting Research: A Methodological Study,” International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 19 (2007), 221–36; and Smith, Tom W., “The Polls: America's Most Important Problems; Part I: National and International,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 4 (1985), 264–74.

13 As a robustness check, we tested that responses to each of the four categories reflect the same underlying variable. We checked whether fluctuations in the level of concern over time were similar across categories and whether each category exhibited a similar relationship with the explanatory variables. The results of these manipulations appear to be robust to differing ways of constructing the dependent variable, with one exception. Abortion seemed to show a different trend to the other categories and have a different relationship with the independent variables. However, so few people reported abortion to be their most important concern that its exclusion or otherwise has little effect on our results.

14 As the effect of the year variables depends on the size of the other variables, we reran the tests experimenting with different normalizations of the means of the explanatory variables. The results were broadly similar.

15 Under the null of parameter stability the difference is distributed χ2(k) where k is the difference in the number of parameters between each model.

16 In this context, commentaries have often pointed to figures such as Ohio governor Ted Strickland and Virginia governor Tim Kaine as well as the 2008 Democratic presidential contenders, most notably Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. It is notable that Obama asked evangelical pastor and best-selling author Rick Warren to give the invocation as his January 2009 presidential inauguration.

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Journal of American Studies
  • ISSN: 0021-8758
  • EISSN: 1469-5154
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