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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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Geoffrey C. Layman , Thomas M. Carsey and Juliana Menasce Horowitz , “Party Polarization in American Politics: Characteristics, Causes, and Consequences,” Annual Review of Political Science, 9 (2006), 83110

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

Paul DiMaggio , John Evans and Bethany Bryson , “Have Americans' Social Attitudes Become More Polarized?”, American Journal of Sociology, 102 (1996), 690755

John H. Evans , “Have Americans' Attitudes Become More Polarized? An Update,” Social Science Quarterly, 84 (2003), 7190

Morris P. Fiorina and Samuel J. Abrams , “Political Polarization in the American Public,” Annual Review of Political Science, 11 (2008), 563–88

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

Young Min , Salma I. Ghanem and Dixie Evatt , “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

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Journal of American Studies
  • ISSN: 0021-8758
  • EISSN: 1469-5154
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-american-studies
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