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

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The Independent Online

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.