During the health-care summit earlier this year, Vice President Joe Biden was roundly mocked for saying, “I don’t know what the American people think.” He was, however, showing a refreshing modesty. Especially when compared with those who believe the American people don’t know what they think””or cannot possibly mean what they say when they tell us what they do think.
Gallup provoked some of this reaction when it released new data early last month on American attitudes toward abortion. Asked to rate various behaviors and social policies (e.g., embryonic stem-cell research, adultery, the death penalty) as either “morally wrong” or “morally acceptable,” 50% called abortion wrong, as against only 38% who said it was acceptable. Even more contentious was the finding, for the second year in a row, that slightly more Americans consider themselves “pro-life” than “pro-choice” (47% to 45%).
The response to this data has been illuminating. Some blame the shift toward pro-life self-identification on abstinence-only education. Others imply that Americans really can’t mean what they say, pointing to other data showing majorities in favor of keeping abortion legal.
Perhaps the most original explanation appeared in Slate. There a writer opined that because President Obama has “softened” the Democratic language on abortion, more Americans now feel free to call themselves pro-life. Yes, let the word go forward: Some Democrats feel that the same Barack Obama who opposed an Illinois state ban on partial-birth abortion and later declared the issue above his pay grade has apparently given them permission to call themselves pro-life.