Big Sort

Spank Your Kids? You Likely Vote Republican.

While the rest of political journalism continues to parse the electorate by ways of life described by the U.S. census— Matt Bai gets up close and chummy with “white guys” in the Times over the weekend—we at The Big Sort will consider two measures that are much more telling:

Spanking and shacking.

Yes, if you really want to know how people will vote, forget “white working class” or “single, college-educated women” and find out the important stuff—like whether a potential voter thinks it’s OK to give the kiddo a swat.

Mark Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler have done some remarkable (and fun) research into the relationship between child rearing and politics. They saw that the National Election Studies surveys in 1992, 2000, and 2002 presented voters with pairs of attributes. The surveys ask, for example, if voters thought it more admirable if a child was independent or showed respect for elders. Should a child be obedient or self-reliant? Curious or well-mannered? Considerate or well-behaved?

George Lakoff described American society as being divided between “two different forms of family-based morality,” the “strict father” and the “nurturant parent.” The two political scientists realized these questions essentially fell on either side of Lakoff’s division—and given the nature of the survey, they could see if there was a political connection between parenting styles and party choice.

There was. Republicans favored respect, obedience, good manners, and being well-behaved. They were strict fathers. Democrats, meanwhile, were nurturant parents.

Hetherington and Weiler could see this split widen over time. (Thirty years ago, after all, nearly everyone was a strict father.) By the time of the latest survey, parenting styles were a better indicator of political affiliation than income.

The two academics also measured those who favored spanking as discipline for children. They found that the “correlation between traditional parenting practices—the ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ approach—and voting for President Bush in 2004 is remarkably strong.”

And those styles had a geography. Massachusetts has the lowest percentage of people who favor the switch and the lowest percentage of voters for Bush. Those in Vermont, Rhode Island, and New York were also unlikely to spank and were very likely to vote for John Kerry.

Meanwhile, the spanking states—Idaho, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Montana, Alabama, Kansas, Tennessee, and Indiana—are, for the most part, reliably Republican even in this year’s Democratic-trending election.

OK, how about shacking?

Demographer Ron Lesthaeghe was mapping changes in family formation in the U.S. when he noticed that “blue” states were different from “red” ones. White women in Democratic Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, California, Maryland, Illinois, Minneapolis, New Hampshire, and Delaware were both marrying and starting families later in life, more like women in Nordic countries than those in Utah, Kansas, and Wyoming. In particular, Lesthaeghe found, the higher the rates of cohabitation before marriage—i.e., shacking—the higher the vote for Kerry.
The demographer said that he “could find no better way to predict the vote for Bush” in 2004 than how people were creating families. The more American families formed like the Dutch, the greater the vote for Democratic presidential candidates. ( Here is one of Lesthaeghe’s papers.)

Lesthaeghe, Weiler, and Hetherington aren’t saying propensity to spank or to shack cause people to vote one way or the other. Their point is that family formation and child-rearing attitudes are part of a worldview. Our politics today are divided by worldview, not by demographic type. And those divisions are real and deep, as this increasingly bitter campaign attests.

“Little wonder our politics today are polarized,” Hetherington and Weiler concluded. “The values of Republicans and Democrats are very much at odds. We do not agree about the most fundamental of issues.”

Nor do we live in the same places. Spankers to this side, please. Shackers over here.