Column: Acceptance and Pragmatism, American Style
WASHINGTON -- It's a counterintuitive notion in an era where it's easy to feel like Americans are sitting in judgment of one another every day. Yet here it is right in front of us: When it comes to social policy in the United States, a new pragmatism prevails in a number of surprising ways.
In a relatively short span, American views have shifted on everything from gay marriage to marijuana legalization to illegal immigration and, perhaps, more. New laws, predictably, have followed. And, today, parts of this country now allow gays to wed and people to smoke marijuana for fun, while Congress is debating whether to permit millions of people in the country unlawfully to stay.
Like it or not, this is what appears to be happening: We are becoming a country that's becoming more accepting rather than exclusive as technology and globalization combine with generational, ideological, demographic changes that are reshaping the nation's very fabric.
With the lessons of war and recession fresh in our minds, is it possible that the period we just underwent gave us some perspective? When people are worried about feeding families in the face of tough economic times and staying safe in the face of terrorism threats, do we no longer have the bandwidth to worry about whom others sleep with, what they smoke or whether they're living here legally? Have we reordered our priorities, becoming so focused on existential challenges that we don't have room for as much judgment in our lives anymore?
Certainly, prejudice still exists and it will likely forever. But the numbers agree. When it comes to social policy, at least, we are changing.
President Barack Obama remarked on how far we've come before an audience of young people in Belfast last week, when he invoked his own nation's history of discrimination while praising the peace achieved so far in Northern Ireland.
He spoke about the Civil War, segregation, slavery and interracial marriage bans, saying that "over time, laws changed, and hearts and minds changed, sometimes driven by courageous lawmakers, but more often driven by committed citizens." He added: "While we have work to do in many ways, we have surely become more tolerant and more just, more accepting, more willing to see our diversity in America not as something to fear, but as something to welcome because it's a source of our national strength."
As the Supreme Court prepares to rule on gay marriage, a Pew Research Center survey has found that for the first time in its polling just over half - 51 percent - of Americans favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally. It also found that 72 percent say that legal recognition of same-sex marriage is "inevitable." This comes a year after Obama declared his support for it.
With two states deciding last fall to legalize pot for recreational purposes, Pew also found in April that most Americans - 52 percent - now back doing so. It's the first time in more than four decades that a majority has taken that position. Support for legalization has risen 11 percentage points since 2010. As recently as a decade ago, only about one-third backed making marijuana legal.
And as Congress reaches toward a comprehensive immigration reform measure, a CBS News/New York Times survey in April found 83 percent favoring an eventual path to citizenship for people in the country unlawfully. That was 20 percentage points higher than what a Pew poll found in 2007, the last time the country engaged in a debate over the issue.
At first glance, these swings in public opinion, and the political changes that at times grudgingly follow, seem easy to explain: Our culture is increasingly defined by the younger, more liberal, more accepting generation but our system of laws remain defined by the older, more conservative, less tolerant generation.
Partly. That explanation belies the complexity of what's really going on. Attitude shifts, including greater acceptance of differences, tend to follow times of high stress.
"Whether it's the war on terror or the recession or this or that, society then reacts to those periods, and change usually results," says Fariborz Ghadar, a global business scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Affairs.
These days, he says, "the younger generation is getting more accepting, the pace of change is much faster, data is available to us more quickly, we're more plugged in to the world around us and it's all combining to allow people to develop their own opinions and be open to others'."
Certainly millennials, people born since 1980 who are now generally between 18 and 32, play a large role in the country's reshaping.
This generation of Americans skews left ideologically, growing up in the polarized period of the George W. Bush years and rallying behind Obama in the period since, becoming more liberal than the previous generation and even their parents' Baby Boomer generation. They came of age at a time when images of the burning World Trade Center towers and unemployment lines likely were seared into their memories as they determined what mattered to them - and, perhaps as importantly, what didn't.
Their impact on the nation's fabric is similar to the impact young people had on the nation in the late 1960s, only in reverse.
"While everyone lost faith in Vietnam, there was a lot of pushback on the cultural, social and political beliefs of the younger generation that created all this tumult," says Andy Kohut of Pew. "It sent the country rightward, not leftward."
But the influence of millennials is only one factor contributing to this public opinion swing.
Other demographic changes - racial and ethnic - are also at play in a nation where whites have long been a majority. They are on pace to lose will lose that status in the next generation, somewhere around the year 2043, as fast-growing Latinos exert their dominance. All that has helped fuel changes in American views about reforming the nation's patchwork immigration system.
And then there's the ideological shift, with significant swaths of both the right and the left showing a be-and-let-be libertarian bent, wary of government intrusion in their personal lives. That strain is evident in both views on pot and gays, and, to some extent, immigration as well.
Contributing to all that is the fact that we're more connected than ever, with seemingly unlimited information literally at our fingertips and the ability to communicate with someone on the other side of the world through a handheld devices - something so recent, yet already so universally accepted that we tend to overlook its power.
We're also more exposed to different people and ideas, given that the around-the-clock media environment picks up on - and promotes - changes in societal attitudes. Just look at programs like "Weeds," "Modern Family" and "Ugly Betty."
Diversity, it seems, is all around us to larger degrees than ever before, a byproduct of globalization. By being exposed, matter-of-factly, to different people with different beliefs, it's hard to see how we wouldn't eventually become more open to including and accepting others who look or act different than the majority.
Even if we wanted to go back to being more exclusive, could we? It's hard to imagine that in this increasingly open society, at least socially, America could turn back in the other direction. As the president put it: "Each successive generation creates a new space for peace and tolerance and justice and fairness."
So while there will always be some degree of prejudice in the world, the United States - a nation engaged in a constant quest to figure out who we are and what we believe - will probably continue chipping away at it, one generation at a time.