Richard Davis: History shows public opinion often changes quickly

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 29 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

The shift in attitudes about gay rights and gay marriage has been rapid. But this is not the first time public opinion has turned over in a short period.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

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According to a recent Deseret News survey, 57 percent of Utahns oppose same sex marriage. That is a significant reduction from the 66 percent of who voted in 2004 for Amendment 3, which banned same sex marriage, civil unions, or any legal recognition of homosexual relations. National surveys find similar, but more pronounced trends. A Gallup poll last July found that 54 percent of Americans believed that same-sex couples should be able to marry. It seems hard to believe that only about a decade ago opinion was reversed. In 2003, only 37 percent of Americans supported same-sex marriage.

Clearly, something dramatic has happened, and in a very short time span. Some may attribute such rapid social change as an indication of the signs of the times or evidence of the last days. It is important to remember that such rapid change in public opinion about social issues is not new. Our ancestors changed their minds over social issues in a short time span, as well.

Take for example, attitudes towards African-Americans. According to Gallup surveys, in 1958, 54 percent of Americans said they would not vote for a qualified presidential candidate if he was black. Twenty years later, in the wake of the civil rights movement, only 18 percent of Americans felt that way. And, 30 years after that, the United States elected its first black president.

Then, there were views about the role of women. In 1945, a Gallup survey found that 64 percent of Americans said they would not vote for a qualified woman candidate as president. By 1975, in the midst of the women’s rights movement, 73 percent said they would do so. This was a dramatic shift in public opinion in just a generation. And it is likely America will have its first woman president in 2017, or at least its first female major party nominee in 2016.

Still another sudden shift has occurred in attitudes about smoking. According to Gallup surveys, in 1957, only 50 percent of Americans believed that cigarette smoking could cause lung cancer. Thirty years later, 87 percent of Americans believed it could. Also, according to Gallup surveys, in 1990, only 30 percent of Americans believed that smoking in public places should be banned. Only 20 years later, 59 percent of Americans felt that way.

The change in attitudes about smoking also has reshaped Americans’ behavior. According to national health surveys, 50 years ago more than 50 percent of American adult men, and about a third of adult women, smoked cigarettes. Today, 22 percent of men and 17 percent of women do so. The shift from a society filled with smokers to one that bans smoking in public places and has relatively few smokers occurred fairly dramatically.

Perhaps most radical was the shift in public attitudes about slavery. In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which not only re-endorsed the practice of slavery included in the U.S. Constitution, but also made it a crime for anyone, including residents of free states, to assist a runaway slave. Seven years later, the U.S. Supreme Court declared slave owners had the right to their slaves anywhere in the United States.

Abolitionist sentiment, the idea that slaves should be free, was a minority view at the time. It is significant that Abraham Lincoln did not run for president in 1860 on a platform of eliminating slavery. Rather he advocated stopping its expansion beyond existing slave states.

Within a decade, all that had changed. Eleven slave states seceded from the Union. Two years into the Civil War, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves in the seceding states. In 1865, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery. Within a few years, the nation had moved from acceptance of slavery as at least a regional institution to total abolition being enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. This swift about-face must have been dizzying to Americans at the time.

The shift in attitudes about gay rights and gay marriage has been rapid. But this is not the first time public opinion has turned over in a short period. Nor is it likely to be the last.

Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.

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