Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Rightwing Group Slander Of Liberals Refuted—Part 5C

Abortion: Changes Over Three Time-Spans


This continues the abortion section of 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. This is the third of 6 sub-parts. [Links at end of post.] Abortion is very important, as it represents the first long-lived social wedge issue supplanting the role of race, which has since slipped into the background. It is only such issue that has robust GSS polling from the early 1970s to date.

This post takes a look at the data across three timeframes in order to understand the changes that have taken place. While the anti-choice movement has produced little net change in attitudes, it has re-arranged the structure of such attitudes—particularly in the white South. Polarization has increased, but agreement still outweighs disagreement between parties and between ideological orientations.

Little Change In Net Support

In the last post, we concluded with a look at abortion views on 7 questions that have been asked repeatedly as part of the General Social Survey since the 1970s. Levels of agreement were high—ranging from 77.9% to 93.8%. In the white South, it went even higher—up to 95.2%. This overall view, however, masks considerable change over the three time periods we’ve used to break down the data (1972-1984, 1985-1993 and 1998-2004), as we’ll see in a moment. First, however, it’s important to note there was relatively little net change. As mentioned previously in this series, the two sets of questions are quite distinct, and can be used to create distinct indices—AbThreat and AbAutonomy, each measuring the number of cases for which an individual supports the right to choose an abortion.

We will use these scales more in future parts. But for now, we’ll just use them for a quick peak to establish the lack of dramatic change. If we look at the results for all three time frames (both nationwide and divided between the white South and the rest of the country) we find shifts of only a few percentage points, which are mostly indicative of increased polarization on the AbAutonomy scale, and a very slight increase in the low level of complete opposition on the AbThreat scale.

First, the ABThreat Scale:
The only notable shift is a slight increase in those supporting abortion in no case, with a comparable decline in those supporting abortion in all three cases. The “no case” increase is 2.5% in the white South, 1.0% elsewhere.

Yet, those supporting abortion in “no case” on the AbThreat scale remain a tiny fraction of the population—just under 1/12th, to be precise. This small fraction is the real maximum size of the anti-choice hardcore. This is the maximum number of those convinced that abortion is murder. Anyone who makes an exception for rape, birth defects, or health of the mother clearly does not believe that abortion is murder—regardless of what they may otherwise say. They believe that abortion is, at worst, homicide, which includes the category of justifiable homicide.

There is, of course, good reason to think that most of that 8% actually doesn’t think that abortion is murder. Few of them, for example, would seriously suggest executing women who get an abortion. This is further evidence that abortion as a political issue is significantly deceptive, however passionately individuals may feel about it.

Things are a little more complex with the AbAutonomy scale—both extremes gain slightly at the expense of the middle:
Again, the shifts are greater in the White South. Those supporting abortion in all 4 cases increased 6.4% in the white South, compared to 3.6% in the rest of the country. Those opposing abortion in all 4 cases increased 5.1% in the white South, compared to 2.2% in the rest of the country.

Polarization Changes Over Time

But if the levels of support and opposition remained fairly stable, the levels of polarization did not. For that, we return to the question-by-question view, beginning with the first time-frame.

And in ratios:

As we can see, the beginning state of agreement was around 95% for the AbThreat set (around 97% in the white South) and 85% for three questions in the AbAutonomy set, with the fourth at 77.9%. In ratios, this translates into the 20-1 range for the AbThreat set, and 6-1 for three of the questions in the AbAutonomy set—very high levels of liberal-conservative agreement. Few married couples agree that often on anything:

Things begin to change significantly in the second time-frame:

In ratios:

At this point, just one measure in the AbThreat set remains about 90, although agreement remains higher for all three in the white South. Agreement levels for the AbAutonomy set are now incredibly uniform, as agreement for the three questions that were around 85% fall to the level of the previous outlier, around 77%. Agreement remains higher in the white South.

In the third time-frame, agreement continues to erode, but the pattern changes as well:

And in ratios:

In the AbThreat set, a sharp split appears. While the highest level of agreement (for ABHLTH) drops 3 percent, support for the other two questions in the AbThreat set drops by twice that much. In the white South, they dropped by about 10 points—10.5% for ABDEFECT and 9.4% for ABRAPE. As a result, the level of disagreement in the white South now exceeds that in the rest of the country. In the rest of the country, agreement decreased by 4-5%.

In the AbAutonomy set, agreement plummeted 11-12% in the white South for all four questions, resulting in agreement levels in the mid-to-high 60s (about 2-1). In the rest of the country, polarization grew less than half as fast, from 2.8 to 5.7%, ending up in the 71-72% range for all four questions. For the whole country, agreement fell 5.0 to 7.6%, ending up in the 70-71% range for all four questions.

The changes discussed are summarized in the following table:

We can clearly see the greater increase in polarization in the white South. It holds for all seven questions. However, that was not the case for the transition between the first and second time-frames, when the opposite pattern prevailed for five questions. The white South actually became less polarized on ABANY, while polarization grew less quickly than it did for the rest of the country for the other AbAutonomy questions, and for ABDEFECT. All this was wiped out by the extraordinary jump in polarization in the white South in following transition, from the second to the third time frames, when all five of those questions increased in polarization by double digits.

This pattern of change is reminiscent of the pattern of change in partisan alignments. And, indeed, there appears to be an obvious reason: the explosive growth of conservative Republicans in the white South. However, as we’ve already seen, the interactions between ideology and party ID can be complicated. Which is what we turn to next.

Links To Previous Parts

Here again are links to 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.
  • Part 5B: A big-picture snapshot of abortion attitudes.


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