Fatherhood & Conservatism
This winter, my wife and I had our first child. As any parent knows, that meant significant changes to our fundamental patterns of life. Sleep was interrupted, personal time placed in the dustbin. Parenthood changes you in rather obvious ways.
Yet, I am experiencing another set of conversions as a result of fatherhood often less understood or examined. While I have felt less at home in the liberalism I maintained for the last 15 years prior to my daughter’s birth, I see a correlation between my current political direction and the fact that I now have a child.
A few years back, Ross Douthat wrote a piece titled “The Daughter Theory” that has only recently found its way to the forefront of consciousness. Ross mentions a recent study published in Sociological Forum by Dalton Conley and Emily Rauscher that appears to show a connection between a man having daughters and a conservative political persuasion. Calling it the “daughter effect,” the researchers found that their findings were statistically sizeable and noteworthy, with fathers of daughters far more likely to identify as Republicans.
While my chances of voting for a Republican candidate are rather slim, I do find myself embracing positions on the Right with enthusiasm that would have baffled and terrified my younger self. Why is this? Previous research, as well as personal anecdotal evidence, affirmed that fatherhood had a net liberalizing factor on adults. Clearly, there are many liberal parents, so having a child is evidently not a determining factor in deciding one’s ideology. Was the birth of my daughter an extraneous variable in my own philosophical growth?
For years, I held social positions that would put me in the liberal mainstream. When the topic of sex in the media was brought up, I argued that the whole of our society should not conform to religious puritanism demanded by “family values” advocates. If you didn’t like what you were being presented on TV or the radio, turn it off. Vote with your feat, as you will.
In Douthat’s article, he argues that when viewing life through your children’s eyes, the challenges of the surrounding world appear more “immediately available through daughters than through sons.” I am beginning to understand this position. The entire modern world around us is so saturated in sex and deviance, that it is not as simple as turning-off the TV. It isn’t just a matter of choice, as the values represented and permeated by our pop-culture is practically inescapable. While I have never meet someone who believes the vulgar behavior present in the media should be adopted by children, I am beginning to see just how ubiquitous entertainment designed for young adults is at all levels of our culture.
When I bring up these negative elements of our pop culture, and explore the possibility that we should collectively take action against them, I get some odd looks from my liberal friends. They recognize (rightfully) that my arguments sound a great deal like those made by the religious right. They reminded me that it is the responsibility of the family to instill virtuous values in children, not popular culture (which they concede represents deleterious morals). They argue that we were all exposed to these things in our youth, but we turned out alright. Why not uphold that same attitude with my own children?
In George Lakoff’s book Moral Politics, he attempted to explain how different philosophical views on parenting explain the core ideological differences between liberals and conservatives. In his estimation, there are two parenting models: that of the Strict Father or the Nurturant Parent.
The Strict Father model conceives the father with “having primary responsibility for supporting and protecting the family as well as the authority to set overall policy, to set strict rules for the behavior of children, and to enforce the rules.” Children who are socialized to respect existing authority and moral standards are the end goals of this philosophical model. The Nurturant Parent drives to build understanding and communication between adult figures and the child. This then produces a lifetime respect for others and a moral understanding of the world in the individual.
Lakoff goes on to say:
“What we have here are two different forms of family-based morality. What links them to politics is a common understanding of the nation as a family, with the government as parent. Thus, it is natural for liberals to see it as the function of the government to help people in need and hence to sup-port social programs, while it is equally natural for conservatives to see the function of the government as requiring citizens to be self-disciplined and self-reliant and, therefore, to help themselves.”
This explanation feels limiting. Can I not stand for mutual aid with my compatriots, while also expecting self-discipline and restraint from fellow citizens? It falls too conveniently into the simplistic Left/Right divisions found in American politics. Lakoff’s field of study is cognitive science; he attempts to comprehend how personality and hidden cerebral elements explain political persuasion. Yet, does simply having children cognitively make one more paternalistic or authoritarian? This seems unlikely, and I would like to offer a sociological conclusion.
Our society puts great stress on the rights of the individual. Examples of liberalism imbedded in our very social fabric are easy to come by, but Founding Father Albert Gallatin’s letter to Alexander Addison in 1789 perfectly encapsulates this individualist design. Writing on the US Constitution, he states the document “Is a declaration of the right of the people at large or considered as individuals…[I]t establishes some rights of the individual as unalienable and which consequently, no majority has a right to deprive them of.”
This broad understanding of individual rights can be connected to my aforementioned pop-culture example. The right to one’s tastes trump the value it may have to society at large. Most of my friends do not have children, and thus can only see pop-culture’s effects through their adult eyes. They often fail to see how difficult it is to shield children from the media’ perverse qualities, especially those directed at girls. I am starting to understand families that live in isolated religious-minded communities and home school their children, and I say that as an agnostic, cosmopolitan public school teacher! There is a significant disconnect in our society between those that have children and those that do not, and this divide has only increased as a result of declining birthrates.
My daughter is only 3 months old; she has many years of childhood ahead of her before these issues will be central to our discussions at home. Yet I fear that my liberal, childless, compatriots will only be able to comprehend popular culture through an individualized, libertine framework. A communitarian approach to our culture needs to be injected into this debate, regardless of one’s political associations.
I don’t know what party I belong in these days; both the Democratic and Republican brands seem unwilling to address problems at the very foundation of our society. What I can say is that I fear my daughter will inherit a world without shared values, culture, and responsibility.
I am interested to see the perspective of other members of the community.
Roland Dodds writes about politics and culture, trying to make sense of the ideological Left and the Right. When not teaching, he spends time with his family in Sonoma County, and blogs at In Hope and Darkness.
[Picture via Wikipedia]