But if you listen closely, you might hear something — a faint but persistent tapping at the window that economists, criminologists and biologists say is the sound of change arriving anyway. From capital punishment to global warming to homosexuality to abortion, many of the social issues that divide us are shifting and evolving — perhaps even in some instances into a new consensus, or at least, and no less profoundly, toward a reframing of the old debates.
POLITICS might be stuck in the slow lane, but science, capitalism and American culture and society are decidedly not, and all are making creative end runs around the gridlock. Mr. Obama’s call in his Iowa victory speech — for “a coalition for change that stretches through red states and blue states” — evokes an earlier time in America, but it also suggests a future that may be unfolding no matter what politicians like him say or do.
“New ways of looking at the world are emerging, but the language of talking about them and what they mean hasn’t caught up,” said Anne Fausto-Sterling, a professor of biology and gender studies at Brown University.
In her field, Professor Fausto-Sterling said, a divide that has gripped society for decades over nature vs. nurture — specifically, whether homosexuality is ordained in the womb or developed in puberty — has been thrown into irrelevance by advances in the study of human genetics. Nature and nurture, it seems, are both too simple to explain everything; genes set the pattern, but environmental conditions then decide whether those genes are turned on or off.
On the equally tangled landscape of capital punishment, there have been legal challenges to the injected drug cocktail in use since the 1970s, as well as front-page exposés from all over the country about death-row inmates cleared through DNA analysis. Both are forcing a reconsideration of the death penalty in state legislatures and courts at a time when crime is far less a front-burner anxiety than it was a generation ago.
In the marketplace, consumer choices and social goals have melded, once again bypassing the political system. Though some of the efforts are probably no more than public relations and pandering to the latest fad, others cannot be so easily dismissed. Those include hybrid vehicles, which are carving out a kind of middle-brow fuel efficiency: not an all-electric car or a bicycle, but not a Hummer, either.
As for abortion, the divisions are probably as deep as ever, but the underlying terrain has shifted. If human stem cells, which can be used to grow new organs, can be made from skin cells rather than embryonic cells, as a recent study suggests, then a whole corner of the abortion debate fades away: There’s no prospect of a global industry in destroying embryos for medical harvest.
And while concerns over privacy will persist no matter what happens to Roe v. Wade, the
Many of the great debates, in short, have become a bit passé, precisely as anticipated by President
In such an environment, the real challenge for politicians, whatever their party, is how to transcend partisanship not just in thought but in deed.
In a New York Times-CBS News poll last April, 43 percent of the respondents who thought the weather had become stranger lately volunteered that global warming was the probable cause, up from only 5 percent a decade ago. But asked in the same survey whether they’d support an increase in gasoline taxes if that might help fight the climate problem, a resounding 58 percent said no.
“Al Gore did a brilliant job of selling the message of global warming — he packaged it and sold it to America and I think the world,” said Laura Ries, the president of Ries & Ries, a marketing strategy firm in Atlanta. “But go to the checkout counter, and people are not always walking the walk.”
Ideas can and do break the barriers between thought and action, between the academy and the shoe-leather reality of the barricades, and sometimes it happens suddenly.
In the 1960s, the demographics of black migration from the South, charismatic leadership and televised images of the racist backlash combined to jar a nation and a Congress to consciousness. In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton stepped away from Democratic Party orthodoxy on welfare and broke the logjam, leading to a historic rethinking of the subject. In 2005, a decision by the Supreme Court affirming the right of the government of New London, Conn., to take property, pay the owners compensation, and give it to someone else for development led to an instant uprising against the practice in statehouses and city halls all over the nation.
“One day it’s the Roman Empire and everybody believes in the pagan gods, the next day it’s Christian — how does that happen?” said Thomas Habinek, a professor of classics at the University of Southern California. Or the “rights of man,” which became a rallying cry of the French Revolution. “Nobody mentions it, and then a few years later there’s a revolution over it,” he said.
But an equally important question is why some ideas don’t break through.
Darwin’s theory of natural selection in evolution, for example, is the bedrock of modern biology, but it had an early life, long-since faded, as a social idea, “survival of the fittest,” that justified every racist thought and act of rapacious capitalist exploitation.
And nearly 150 years after the theory’s publication in “The Origin of Species,” millions of people, including some running for president, say they don’t believe in evolution because it remains an “unproven” theory (while other theories, like relativity, are accepted without much question).
Other times, society gets on with it, historians say, by simply turning the page, as occurred in the early 1800s, when deep divisions over religion, science and morality were papered over by a giant mental compromise that became known as the Victorian Age. The Victorians didn’t resolve the tensions over romanticism and materialism that had festered in Europe for centuries; they denied and suppressed them.
Today, pop entertainment, sophisticated marketing and the Internet can shift public thinking and taste as fast as a Britney Spears news cycle. Are the evolving attitudes that poll takers find about homosexuality, for example, a reflection of new science and genetics, or “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” or simply the fact that young people are more comfortable with gay friends who are acknowledging their sexuality earlier and more openly?
Professor Bunzl at Rutgers, who works on climate change and energy issues, said that the quieting of controversy could speak louder than the clamor of the fight itself.
“There is much more change going on than we realize,” he wrote in an e-mail message. “And one way it expresses itself is how all of a sudden we realize that what was an issue no longer matters.”
Indeed, in his Iowa speech, Mr. Obama seemed to suggest that even having a conversation about healing and coming together was outdated, and that it’s what you do next, with a consensus and a community made real through action, that matters.
“We are one nation, we are one people,” he said. “And our time for change has come.”