What We Can Learn from Surveys

Richard and Mildred Loving, 1965

Richard and Mildred Loving, 1965

If you haven’t been called to participate in a survey this week, you’ll probably be asked next week. Voters are increasingly accosted by exit pollers wanting to know who they are and how they voted. Fake commercial surveys to get you to buy products and fake political surveys which insist that you share their opinion compete with real surveys, all trying to find out what we collectively do and think.

For all of my professional life, I have worked with population censuses, the most democratic survey of all. Well-done surveys hold up a mirror to our American society. Over decades surveys show us changing, slowly but hopefully.

Marriage is the most important choice we make, the most celebrated and the most personal. Surveys show us how American marriage is changing. Before 1950, marriage between whites and blacks was illegal in most states, and this reflected popular sentiment among whites: a 1958 Gallup poll showed that 96% of white Americans disapproved of interracial marriage. During the 1950s, these laws were repealed in state after state, except in the South. When the Supreme Court ruled in 1967 that Virginia’s laws against interracial marriage were unconstitutional (Loving v. Virginia), only 17 Southern states still enforced such laws.

Since then, American marriage has become more colorful. In 1980, 7% of all new marriages were between spouses of a different race or ethnicity. That number increased to 15% by 2010. More than one-third of Americans (35%) say that a close relative is married to someone of a different race. Nearly two-thirds of Americans (63%) say it “would be fine” if a member of their family married outside their own racial or ethnic group.

Americans have been asked about their attitudes toward gay marriage over the past 15 years. The percentage who favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry has risen steadily from 27% in 1996 to 46% last year. In 2011 for the first time, more Americans approved of gay marriage than opposed it. That shift has been driven by younger Americans: 61% of those born after 1980 approve, 48% of those born between 1965 and 1980, but only 32% of those born before 1945. Those results leave little doubt that the overall proportion of Americans approving of gay marriage will continue to grow for decades.

As in the case of interracial marriage, discriminatory claims have clashed with people’s experience. We have heard the arguments of the homophobic right for decades, but our experiences with gay people, as with people of other ethnic backgrounds, have demonstrated that those arguments are both wrong and mean-spirited. Once the enforced segregation of black and gay Americans into closets and ghettos was broken, discriminatory ideas have lost their persuasive power.

steve hochstadtThese surveys don’t tell us what is right or moral or constitutional. They do show Americans changing ideas and practices, heading toward equality and away from discrimination.

A second subject of survey data has been making recent headlines. About 6 in 10 Americans have heard about the controversy over a federal rule that all employers, including most religiously affiliated institutions, must provide coverage for birth control in their health care insurance plans. Among those aware of the issue, 48% believe the federal rule should give an exemption to religious institutions who object to providing contraceptive coverage, and 44% oppose such an exemption.

As arguments continue to be made, and this issue plays a role in the Presidential election, these percentages may shift, but one thing is already clear. For one side to call the other side immoral or un-American means excluding half of all Americans. The survey does not tell us which policy is right or better. But it does tell us that each side has enough right on its side to persuade half of everyone we know not to agree with us.

Steve HochstadtSurveys do not provide political solutions to controversial issues, but they help us make better political decisions. When we see a growing majority of Americans welcoming racial and sexual diversity in our families, we know that laws should follow. When we see Americans evenly divided on a major issue, we know that our proper policy probably lies somewhere in the middle, with a compromise that sufficiently respects religious beliefs, without injuring women’s health or violating the separation of church and state.

We see that extremists’ doomsday predictions and intolerant attitudes are the desperate tactics of a shrinking minority.

Steve Hochstadt
Taking Back Our Lives 

Published by the LA Progressive on March 20, 2012
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About Steve Hochstadt

Steve Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the Holocaust (2004) and Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich (2012), both from Palgrave Macmillan. He writes a weekly column for the Jacksonville (IL) Journal-Courier and blogs for the History News Network. "His latest work is presented at www.stevehochstadt.com."