Is the right winning the US culture wars? Yes, no and maybe

Out of America: On the 'hot-button' issues of gun control, abortion and gay marriage, the country is moving in several directions at once

Share
Related Topics

Are the conservative crazies completing their takeover of America? Following the US Senate's failure last week to pass even the most modest, common-sense measures to strengthen gun control after the Sandy Hook school massacre, the easy answer is yes. But not so fast. In some key respects this country is moving not away from, but closer to the "triple-S" Europe (soggy, sclerotic and socialist) that the American right loves to berate.

Nowhere in the Western world do the culture wars rage so fiercely as here. So consider recent developments on four main fronts of those wars: guns, of course, but also gays, abortion and the death penalty. All four are "hot-button" issues that cut across party lines, yet can decide elections. Study them more closely, and you realise that America is going in every direction at once.

On guns, the movement is to the right. A return to the early 1990s, when Congress brought in background checks on firearm purchasers and imposed a 10-year federal ban on assault weapons, is unthinkable. It gives me no satisfaction whatsoever to recall that, on the day Adam Lanza shot dead 20 children in Newtown, Connecticut, I predicted that in terms of stricter gun control, nothing would come even of that unspeakable tragedy. And so, alas, it has proved.

Blame pusillanimous senators if you like, or the wicked scheming of the gun lobby. But America is a federal country, where key powers reside with individual states – and at state level, pro-gun laws are gaining ground. In the months since Sandy Hook, Arkansas has dropped a ban on carrying firearms in churches and on college campuses, South Dakota now permits schools to arm teachers, while numerous states have eased restrictions on carrying concealed weapons. And so on.

On capital punishment, though, the opposite is true. Last year, only 43 people were executed in the US, fewer than half the mid-1990s peak; and almost four months in, the 2013 total thus far is just eight. At the same time, the number of death sentences passed by courts has fallen by three-quarters over the past 15 years. True, 3,146 people remain on death row, but a quarter of those are in California alone, which has executed no one in seven years.

In March, Maryland became the 18th state to ban capital punishment, and in practice, 30 of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia today no longer use it. Public opinion has shifted, spurred by the exoneration of scores of death row prisoners as a result of improved DNA testing and the widening use of life sentences without possibility of parole. Slowly but surely, you sense, the death penalty in America is on the way out.

Ah yes, reply liberals, but what about abortion? And they have a point. At the national level, Roe vs Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that guarantees a woman's right to an abortion, still holds (though some courts have chipped away at it). But at the state level, the gradual shift in public opinion is plain to see.

On Friday, the Governor of Kansas, Sam Brownback, signed into a law a new bill declaring that life begins at fertilisation. Four weeks earlier, North Dakota went further still as its legislature passed a "personhood" law that in effect bans abortion outright. Others, including Mississippi and Virginia, have adopted laws tightening regulations on abortion clinics in a thinly veiled attempt to force them out of business. Yes, these are all Republican-run states, but the national trend is unmistakable.

So America is shifting rightward? Again, not so fast. Consider the last of these "hot-button" issues, gay rights – or, more exactly, gay marriage. Public support for gay marriage has almost doubled in a decade. Nine states have legalised it. The change of mood has been stunning.

Frustratingly, there is no obvious paradigm to make sense of these trends. Is America growing more libertarian? That might explain the aversion to gun control and more backing for gay marriage – but less so the decline in support for the death penalty, and tighter abortion restrictions. Maybe the fact that America is growing younger and more urban has something to do with it – but younger city-dwellers, you would imagine, would be less keen on guns and more sympathetic to abortion rights. Hispanics, coming from traditional Catholic societies, might be expected to oppose abortion, but what do they feel about gay marriage?

No, the explanation is surely much simpler. An incredibly diverse country of 300 million souls is simply too big to pigeonhole. America, like humankind itself, is everything and the opposite of everything.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: A huge step forward in medical science, but we're not all the way there yet

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
David Cameron has painted a scary picture of what life would be like under a Labour government  

You want constitutional change? Fixed-term parliaments have already done the job

Steve Richards
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album