Issue Evolution, Political Parties, and the Culture Wars

Article excerpt

Using the issue evolution framework, our research examines partisan polarization on several culture war issues, including pornography, environment, gun control, and gay civil rights. We look for evidence of partisan polarization among political elites and citizens, as well as examine top-down versus bottom-up paths of influence among Republicans and Democrats. Data from the General Social Survey and congressional rollcall votes between 1970-1999 are analyzed. Our results suggest that although partisan elites have become increasingly polarized on culture war issues, mass partisans have not followed suit across all issues. Only on environmental and gun control issues do we find significant evidence of issue evolution, including a linkage between elite and mass opinion. We conclude that culture war issues may not be as prone to issue evolution as previous research has indicated, in part because these issues are not all equally salient to the mass public.

Representation is a central tenet of democracy but the dynamics of representation, especially on individual issues, is often unclear. Previous research has shown the connection between public opinion and policy (Monroe 1983; Page and Shapiro 1983). Further, although parties can represent citizen preferences (Carmines, McIver, and Stimson 1987; Monroe 1983), the specifics of representation through political parties, both top-down and bottom-up, are less clear (Adams 1997). Political parties can serve as transmitters of information and guidance, sending cues down from elites, to party activists, and finally to the masses, as well as up to elites from the masses (Bartels 2000; Layman 1999; Layman and Carsey 2000). The party can serve as the intermediary institution, used by elites to frame the issue for the masses, and by the public as a means to hold their elected officials accountable (Schlesinger 1985). This function of parties is especially important on culture war issues because many have noted the tendency of culture war issues to polarize the parties (Hunter 1991; Tatalovich and Daynes 1998; Carmines and Layman 1997; Layman 1999; Sharp 1999). The conflictual nature of issues such as black civil rights, abortion, environmental protection, pornography, gun control, and gay civil rights appear to intensify the partisan environment, which may gradually lead to long-lasting shifts in the demographic and ideological groups defining party coalitions. Such shifts in party positions and coalitions are termed an issue evolution and have been found in racial and civil rights politics (Carmines and Stimson 1980, 1989; Carmines and Layman 1997; Layman and Carsey 2000).1

Indeed, partisanship generally, and partisanship on the culture war issue of abortion, has increased over time among elites, activists, and the masses (Bartels 2000; Adams 1997; DiMaggio, Evans, and Bryson 1996; Fleisher and Bond 2000; Layman 1999).2 Adams (1997) argues that this pattern is evidence of issue evolution on abortion. Given the similar characteristics of a variety of culture war issues and the fact that the Republican party has increasingly tried to distinguish itself on morality and "family values" issues since 1980 (see Layman 1999; Layman and Carsey 2000), we might see a similar pattern of issue evolution on other culture war issues. Research suggests that these issues share a similar, perhaps post-materialist, dimension (Green and Guth 1989; Jelen 1993; Inglehart and Abramson 1999), but researchers have not systematically examined culture war issues for evidence of issue evolution. Our research fills this gap by posing the following questions from a basic formulation of the issue evolution framework: 1) have partisan differences among elites and among the masses developed on culture war issues, and, if so, 2) have elite and mass partisan opinions influenced one another?

Our research investigates these questions by examining trends in mass and elite partisan opinions on four issues-lesbian and gay civil rights, pornography, gun control, and environmental protection. …