Attitudes toward homosexuality have been changing dramatically in recent years. Unlike many other social issues, in which people make a decision about them at one point in young adulthood and then stick with that decision for the rest of their lives, this has been an issue on which even older people have changed their minds. Earlier this summer, I mentioned an article* that a colleague, Bob Andersen (now at University of Toronto), and I had published demonstrating that, in Canada and the United States, this unusual shift in attitudes had occurred. Still, many questions remain about the mechanisms that cause shifts in attitudes, especially one so sudden.
Can it be, as we speculate in this paper, that social policy differences between Canada and the United States are responsible for the differences in timing of the attitudinal shifts in these countries? Or is it larger economic forces that push both countries in the direction of greater tolerance as they become richer? This latter question we take up in a second article, just published in the American Journal of Political Science.*
One theory, the postmaterialist thesis, holds that as countries gain wealth, their citizens enter a postmaterialist state, in which they don’t need to worry much about putting food on the table, and they can turn their attention to other issues, such as women’s rights, human rights and other issues that promote greater tolerance overall. The evidence supporting this shows that cross-national comparisons show that countries with greater GDP also show more tolerant attitudinal scores on a wide range of social issues. In our article, we consider the role that inequality plays in this process.
We compare attitudes in 33 European democracies, plus the U.S. and Canada, and we have two main findings. The first is that that class does matter to attitudes toward homosexuality. Class matters, in that working-class people not only have lower levels of tolerance than professionals and managing classes, but they have very similar attitudes to other working-class people in other countries, regardless of GDP. Or, another way to say that is that the postmaterialist state of rich countries does not necessarily trickle down to working-class people, and neither do the tolerant attitudes that national wealth supposedly ushers in.
The second finding is that national economic inequality, measured by the Gini coefficient, is a significant predictor of overall levels of attitudes toward homosexuality. In fact, the effect washes out the significance of GDP as a predictor of attitudes in our models. In other words, rich countries that have high inequality are less tolerant than less wealthy countries with lower inequality.
How does inequality disrupt the development of tolerant attitudes toward homosexuality, something seemingly so unrelated to the economy? One idea is that greater equality breeds greater general trust in fellow human beings. Under conditions of high inequality, this general trust dissolves and is replaced by a more specific trust in people we know and people who are “like” us. Specific trust is more of an “us vs. them” mentality, allowing for the scapegoating of marginalized groups, such as lesbian and gay people.
Although we didn’t speculate even further in the paper, I continue to wonder if the social policies that create greater inequality can be found to produce or reinforce negative attitudes toward homosexuality and toward other marginalized groups? I am not sure how one would embark on such a project, but I am curiouser and curiouser about the links between policy, inequality, and attitudes.
*Subscription required, but pdfs are also available on my website.