Family issues in Utah Foundation survey raise more questions

The Utah Foundation recently released a helpful survey of voter and party delegate attitudes on a range of issues.

I’ve spent some time looking at the four questions related to family issues and have a couple of general observations.

First, question phrasing makes understanding of attitudes somewhat difficult. For instance, while only 22 percent of voters agree with the proposition “same gender marriage should be legalized,” it is not clear whether that amount would be even lower if the question accurately reflected the current state of the law. The statement in the poll suggests that same-sex marriage is illegal but, of course, anyone is free to participate in any kind of ceremonial marriage they choose. The question is rather whether our law of marriage (which reflect the near-unanimous consensus of civilization across culture and history) should be redefined to remove the element of sex difference. 

As another example, the question on the sanctity of life asks for assent to the proposition that “abortion of any kind should be legalized.” It is much more common for attitude surveys to ask whether abortion should be allowed in a variety of circumstances. Someone might, for instance, believe that abortion should be allowed in “hard cases,” such as where a child is conceived as a result of rape or incest or where a continued pregnancy imminently threatens the life of the mother, but not approve of abortion for other reasons such as sex-selection or convenience. The hard cases reflect a surpassingly small number of the actual abortions that take place in Utah (out of 3,446 in 2010, 16 were for threats to a mother’s life, three for rape and none for incest; see here).

Second, while there is some divergence (sometimes significant) between attitudes of “all voters” and party voters and delegates, Republican voters and delegates are closer to the attitudes of all voters than are Democratic delegates and voters, suggesting that positions such as same-sex marriage (favored by 58 percent of Democratic delegates and 65 percent of Democratic voters but 22 percent of all voters) or unfettered access to abortion are still understood to be extreme by Utahans.

Finally, and most importantly, there are some problems with the premise. Utah Foundation may not intend this purpose, but its report has certainly been used to make the argument that delegates are “zealots” because they do not precisely reflect the views of all voters. This would be a telling criticism if our system of government were designed to be a plebiscitary-democracy. Thankfully, however, the framers of the Utah and United States Constitutions bequeathed to us a republic.

James Madison said the first effect of the difference between a democracy and a republic is “to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” We expect those who represent us, whether in office or as delegates selected by their neighbors, to study issues and personalities carefully. They are to put in more time and should have varied experiences that will help them to form an enlightened opinion on matters of public interest.