Monday, August 21, 2006

The Rightwing Group Slander Of Liberals Refuted—Part 5B

Abortion: The Big Picture

After a long hiatus, I’ve resumed my argument (based primarily on data from the General Social Survey [GSS]) that it’s not liberals, but ultra-conservative movement conservatives who are far outside America’s mainstream. In contrast, ordinary conservatives and liberals agree much more often than not. In the second of 6 parts devoted to abortion, I look squarely at the data on agreement and disagreement, which is not the same as consensus, since it includes how much liberals take the conservative position as well the reverse. This is, in effect, a measure of how much polarization there is, not where majorities lie.

Some of the data presented comes from 7 questions that were asked repeatedly over the years. A detailed look at how these numbers have changed over time will be the subject of the next post in this series. But first, a simple “snapshot” post, to get a feel for the conceptual terrain.

Refresher on Agreement and Disagreement

The concept of polarization can readily be quantified for any question we have cross-tabs for. The method is straightforward. Either one of two complementary methods can be used—tabulating the agreement or the disagreement. With spreadsheets, it is trivial to do both. Explaining how and why they work is only a bit more complicated.

So let’s look at an example, and I’ll explain:

We have three conceptually identical examples. I’ll use the last for my example.

Agreement in any row is simply the minimum of the columns being compared. Here we are measuring liberal/conservative agreement and disagreement. (We could do the same with party ID, race, gender, anything we have crosstabs for.) The minimum of 32.6 and 11.8 is 11.8. The minimum of 28.4 and 23.6 is 23.6. And so on. The total agreement is the total of the column of all the agreement figures for all the options.

Disagreement is slightly more complex, for a simple reason: when two people disagree, their disagreement shows up twice: once in the category chosen by the first person, and once in that chosen by the second. For this reason, the sum of the column will have to be divided by two to get the proper figure for total disagreement. Disagreement for each row is the difference between the columns being compared. The difference between 32.6 and 11.8 is 20.8. The difference between 28.4 and 23.6 is 4.8. And so on. And, as already explained, the total disagreement is half the total of the column of all the disagreement figures.

The two total figures, agreement and disagreement, must add up to 100%—give or take rounding errors, which we have in this case: the total is 100.1%. The agreement ratio is the amount of agreement divided by the disagreement.

With that out of the way, we are now ready to put this concept to use.

Abortion: The Big Picture

On the macro scale—across the whole population—abortion views have changed remarkably little over the course of 30 years. However the composition of those views in the population has changed considerably, and this has resulted in increased polarization—but still, far less polarization than is commonly assumed. Furthermore, while there were substantial shifts in abortion views by political identity, there was virtually no shift by church attendance.

The GSS has 18 substantive questions on abortion. Of these 11 were asked once or just a few times in the early 1980s. They provide a snapshot of that time, with agreement levels ranging from the high 90s down to 72.3% nationwide, and 67.2%—just over 2/3rds—in the white South.

In terms of percentage agreement the results are as follows:

In terms of agreement/disagreement ratios, the results are as follows:

None of these figures is indicative of polarization anything like what we see at the Presidential level, which is around 0.4 to 1. That’s a level at which more than two out of three liberals and conservative disagree with on another. The lowest figure on the entire table above is roughly the reverse of that: 2.0 to 1, meaning that two out of three liberals and conservatives agree with one another.

Another seven questions have been asked repeatedly over the years. As mentioned in the previous post, these fall into two distinct groups. The first is a set of three questions dealing with threat situations—rape, threat to the mother’s health, or a strong chance of serious birth defects. The remaining four deal with choices that clearly reflect a woman’s right to autonomy—abortion for any reason, if not married, if married but wants no more children, and if low-income. In the discussion that follows, we will look at these both as groups of related questions, and collectively as separate abortion scales—AbThreat and AbAutonomy.

Considering the entire period as a whole, agreement levels among the AbThreat set of questions are remarkably high—the high 80s and low-to-mid 90s. Interestingly, the highest agreement level comes in the white South—an exception to the overall rule that the white South is otherwise more polarized than the rest of the nation. Agreement among the AbAutonomy set is significantly lower, though still above 75% (3-1), and closer to 80% (4-1) overall. There is surprisingly little variation among all four questions.

In terms of agreement/disagreement ratios, the results are as follows:

This overall view shows remarkably low levels of polarization. Interstingly, the levels of polarization are lower for the white South.

However, as we’ll soon see in Part 5C, (“Abortion: How The Picture Changes Over Time”), this combined data from the 1970s to date masks considerable internal change over the three time periods we’ve used to break down the data (1972-1984, 1985-1993 and 1998-2004).

Still, two things will also become clear: First, even at the most extreme levels that have appeared in recent years, polarization is still far below the levels seen in presidential elections. This is compatible with the recently reported polling data that most people want to some sort of common ground position developed on abortion. Second, the pattern of increasing polarization will not support the claim that liberal Democrats are driving the process.

Links To Previous Parts

Here again are links to all the previous parts of this series:
    Part 1: Introduction. Overview of argument and data.
  • Part 2: GSS Spending shows conservative support for the welfare state, and high levels of cross-ideological agreement.
  • Part 3 shows shifts in party identification consistent with the historical record of race as the primary impetus for white Democrats shifting to the Republican Party.
  • Part 4 looks at the partisan shifts through the lens of religion.
  • Part 5A “The Big Picture—Parties, Abortion and Race Over The Years” began the 6-part look at abortion.


At 12:59 AM, Blogger Meteor Blades said...

Hi, Paul. Just wanted to check in and tell you on your own site how much I enjoyed this incredible series.

At 2:36 AM, Blogger Paul Rosenberg said...


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Yes, enlightening and jaw-dropping. I've noticed you do not get much in the way of opposing arguments here or at SC. Great job on the research.

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