Parenthood can have a Profound Effect on Political Views and Party Affiliation

Children and Families have increasingly dominated the Political Discourse
HARTFORD, CT, March 6, 2014- Political scientists have analyzed the voting patterns of Americans from just about every conceivable angle, but Laurel Elder, a professor of political     science at Hartwick College in New York, has come up with a new one: whether or not having children affects the way men and women view candidates, issues and even party affiliation.
 
Elder, who spoke to a Common Hour audience Tuesday, is the co-author, along with Steven Greene of North Carolina State University, of The Politics of Parenthood: Causes and Consequences of the Politicization and Polarization of the American Family, published in 2012. The title of Tuesday’s lecture was “The Politics of Parenthood and Presidential Elections.”
 
Her book is based on her and Greene’s empirical research, which documents how parenthood and the family have become politicized in U.S. politics in response to significant changes in the structure of the American family.
 
Those changes include such factors as fewer people getting married and when they do, it’s typically at an older age; the sharp increase in the number of single mothers; the heightened number of mothers in the workforce; fathers assuming a larger role in their children’s lives; and the growing number of young adults who say that being a “good parent” is important.
 
Some of these trends go back decades, Elder said, but there is strong evidence that children and families have assumed an ever greater role in “contemporary American political discourse.” Since at least 1952, issues related to children and families began showing up in party platforms, but they have become even more noticeable of late.
 
“Parents have become a little bit crazy,” said Elder. “They’re even more concerned about their kids than past generations. Parents are working more hours but still managing to spend more time with their children. They put parenthood ahead of everything else in their lives.”
 
Politicians have sought to capitalize on that societal change. Elder noted that The New York Times analyzed all of the words spoken during the 2008 presidential conventions and found that “family” or “families” was the fourth most often mentioned word. In 2012, Elder said, both Ann Romney and Michelle Obama, who were prominently featured at the Republican and Democratic conventions, respectively, both emphasized that their husbands were family men.
 
“Parenthood really became politicized,” said Elder.
 
Although children’s attitudes about politics are formed at a relatively early age, Elder said, new research shows that attitudes can shift. In households where mothers and fathers belong to different political parties, the children tend to follow in their father’s footsteps.
 
Elder pointed out that mothers and fathers still play very different roles and also have different expectations. Despite shifting societal norms, mothers are still considered the primary caregivers, chauffeurs and schedulers and fathers are seen as the economic providers, even in households where the woman is the primary breadwinner.
 
Conventional wisdom has long held that women tend to be more liberal and Democratic and men more conservative and Republican end. Women have a greater interest in health care, education, social services and generally are more dovish toward war. Men are more conservative on issues such as jobs, welfare, gay rights, and abortion. That holds true regardless of race, class or income level, Elder said.
 
In addition, women see government programs as a “helping hand,” whereas men see them as “whittling their paychecks,” she said.
 
But Elder also noted that those trends are changing. A good example is Americans’ views on gay rights, with men having become much more tolerant. And although Republicans have historically done very well among married couples, now that marriage is becoming less common, families have moved in the direction of Democrats. In 2012, for example, Barack Obama won 74 percent of the vote of those who said they were parents.
 
Elder teaches courses on public opinion, elections, and gender in American politics at Hartwick College. She has published articles exploring why women, especially Republican women, remain so significantly under-represented in political office. She and Greene are co-authors of The Politics of Parenthood, as well as articles exploring the way the act of raising children shapes the political attitudes of men and women.