Washington — Americans are far less divided into "liberals" and "conservatives" over traditional political issues than is generally believed. What tend to divide Americans are the controversial "moral" issues, such as abortion, homosexuality, and drug use.
But the "moral majority" that has introduced such issues into the political debate is really a "moral minority" -- that is, only 24 percent of the public consistently takes strict stands on all such issues, while the vast majority of Americans evaluate each moral issue by individual circumstances.
These are among the findings of a major new study of American political, social, and religious attitudes, conducted by Research and Forecasts Inc. for the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company.
The findings that conservatives and liberals tend to differ "modestly" in their policy preferences is supported by a new public opinion magazine survey of conservative liberal trends.
The broad public tends to differ from its better-educated, successful elite class on issues such as leadership, the Connecticut study reports. The public overshelmingly seeks "honesty" in a national leader, with "intelligence" a distant second and "competence" last. The nation's elite rank "competence" first, honesty fourth.
Indeed, the more sharply drawn "liberal" and "conservative" viewpoints are lodged far more clearly among vocal leaders than among the public itself.
Class differences among people, whether measured by education, income, or occupation, are greater than the differences between liberals and conservatives of the same class, says Everett Ladd, editor for the Public Opinion study. Mr. Ladd points out that on the question of abortion for a married woman who does not want more children, two-thirds of conservatives with grade-school educations would oppose the abortion, while two-thirds of postgraduate conservatives would approve it.
Whatever their political views, however, Americans appear to long for leaders who will dedicate their lives to the greater national good, the Connecticut survey finds. Americans appear ready to respond to a visionary leader trying to mobilize large numbers of people for national programs of self-sacrifice.
But the warning has often been sounded that there is a danger the same longing for leadership, with a heightened moral fervor, could be subverted into a negative partisan campaign to blame the nation's troubles on one group or another labeled as "immoral."
The study finds three-fourths of Americans "latently" religious and susceptible to a call to faith. The study cautions, however, that "the doctrine of separation of church and state is deeply imbedded in our national heritage."
The emerging consensus on traditional political issues is remarkably broad and even embraces today's economic questions. "There is no Vietnam war pitting one segment of the population against the other," it points out.
On political issues, where differences provoked volatile emotions, there is no more than a 14 percent difference between responses of liberals and conservatives -- and on many issues virtual agreement, the Connecticut Mutual study found.
At least seven out of 10 Americans believe the courts are too concerned with the rights of criminals, that the government has too much power over the lives of the average citizen, that the United States has been too willing to accept refugees, and that social security taxes should be increased if necessary to provide adequate incomes for older people. Americans agree on these issues regardless of political ideology or affiliations, age, gender, job status, race, place of residence, education, or level of religious commitment.
On some issues, American subgroups disagree. While 74 percent of Americans believe the US should have the world's strongest military, no matter what the cost, the most religious and least educated are the most likely to believe this.
Those under 25 are least likely to support a peacetime draft for men or to think there is too much concern for criminal rights. And the most religious are by far the most opposed to strengthening women's rights.
Sex has little bearing on public attitudes, even on issues like women's rights or a draft for women.
Regionalism, too, apparently means less than is commonly supposed: Southerners, while regarded as traditionalists, do not differ from Northerners on women's rights, a strong military, or a guaranteed standard of living for Americans.
About the think-alike tendencies of Americans, Ladd concludes: "Most Americans are not conservatives or liberals; they do not apply 'overarching conceptual dimensions' to give order and coherence to a variety of specific public policy stands. . . . The status of conservatism and liberalism within the populace at large [reflects] modest inclinations in policy preferences that lack the sharp distinctiveness of the same positions among political leaders and activists."