The New York Times Week in Review recently had a fascinating article (“Children, the Littlest Politicians,” Feb. 19, 2006 ) on gender differences in political allegiances. No, this isn’t the well-known gender gap whereby women lean Democratic and men Republican. Rather, parents of boys tend to vote more conservatively than parents of girls. Most of the research conducted so far has been in Europe. For example:
“In Germany, two-thirds of people who switched their political affiliation in the year after having a son moved to the more conservative party. The ratio was flipped for those who had a daughter.
“In Britain, the two left of center parties, Labor and the Liberal Democrats, do much better — 11 percentage points — among voters with three girls and no boys than among voters with three boys and no girls.”
As the Times article points out, these findings avoid the famous researcher warning — correlation doesn’t prove causation — for, as the article states, “there is no way that voting for a Democrat makes someone more likely to bear a daughter.” For political activists these findings raise profound questions about the origins of political attitudes and behaviors that we ignore at our peril. In attempting to fathom what these results mean, it is important to think about the causes and processes which might bring about these results. The Times article has a couple of speculations as to causes, neither of which is backed by any evidence:
“Matthew Dowd, a Republican strategist, adds another possibility: Many voters are influenced by their friends. Mr. Dowd speculates, for example, that parents of boys spend more time fishing and end up surrounded by Republicans.”
Or: “One reason, Mr. Oswald said, might be that men work longer hours and earn more money than women, giving the parents of boys reason to want lower taxes. Men also tend to prefer that individuals make decisions, a view that fits with Republican beliefs, while women prefer community solutions.”
How the latter point translates into the gender-of-child (as opposed to gender-of-parent) preference is not clear.
An alternative explanation that makes greater sense to me is that having a son leads to arousal of what George Lakoff calls the Strict Father morality (metaphorical system of political morality) that Lakoff argues underlies conservative thinking, whereas parenting a girl arouses the Nurturant Parent morality underlying liberal thought.
Likely, parenting a boy tends to arouse mental constructs and fantasies around masculinity, strength, independence, and of the dangerous external world for which the boy needs to be prepared as opposed to protected from, as in the case of a girl. The arousal occurs because of the conceived needs of the boy child, but also because the parents assume a socially-constructed role as parent of a boy. Further, parenting a boy leads to fantasies of the man that the boy will grow up to become, and these fantasies are themselves tinged with all of our cultural assumptions about masculinity. These constructs often cohere into Lakoff’s Strict Parent morality.
Parenting a girl, in turn, tends to arouse in parents mental constructs of nurturing, both because the girl is perceived, perhaps due to cultural constructions of femininity, as needing greater nurturing, but also because her being a girl arouses culturally-influenced fantasies of the nurturing girl and woman it is imagined she will become.
It would be interesting to know whether the effects on voting tendency affect men and women equally. Examining the relationship of these patterns to parent-child gender congruence or incongruence might help illuminate these mechanisms. For example, Mathew Dowd’s claim that parents of boys are more likely to hang out with fish-catching Republicans would most likely affect fathers more than mothers. Dowd’s theory also sheds no light on the German or other European results described in the Times article. I also wonder if single mothers’ experiences are influenced the same way that married parents are. After all, many single mothers of boys in our society often feel a special burden to protect their sons from the dangers of the outside world — crime, drugs, and other potential negative peer influences — which arguably might evoke either of Lakoff’s moral systems.
Many leftists have been suspicious of Lakoff’s view of moral politics because they perceive him as arguing for ignoring social policy analysis, rational arguments, and evidence, and basing political discourse solely on emotional appeals to certain “values.” Further, to many of us, many of Lakoff’s political judgments are too close to those of the mainstream Democratic party, to which he has been a sometime adviser, that many activists see as a prime cause of the decline of progressive social policies and thinking in the last few decades. For example, Lakoff does not echo Thomas Frank’s concerns about the Democratic abandonment of working people in their headlong rush to embrace corporate-friendly globalization. However, rejecting Lakoff’s political judgments, or believing that he overemphasizes one of many aspects of political discourse, does not mean that his thinking on the metaphoric systems that underlie much of political discourse is not illuminating.
In addition to the light Lakoff’s work shines on the emotional/moral underpinnings of political discourse and political thought, it also helps illuminate a deep weakness in the contemporary radical left. Lakoff poses a contrast between a largely patriarchal and conservative Strict Father morality and the alternate liberal Nurturant Parent morality. Lakoff has an obvious preference for the Nurturant Parent morality, in which the state is viewed as being a loving parent, dedicated to helping the child-citizen grow and develop. Yet, the Nurturant Parent morality, like its opposite, bases political discourse on a view of the state (or society) as a parent taking care of a child-citizen unable to care for her- or himself. This view of liberalism is consistent with the conservative stereotype of the patronizing liberal, all too happy to treat the underprivileged like children, through programs like welfare that maintain the client’s dependent status while providing assistance. (Needless to say, I am not here endorsing that travesty called “welfare reform” that threw the poor to the mercies of a ruthless market economy.)
Yet, in a true democracy, the citizens shouldn’t be viewed as relatively helpless children of a greater entity, but as peers to each other, co-creators of the larger whole that is a democratic society. Socialist movements of the past had inklings of such relationships in the concept of the “comrade,” however much that became perverted in the Stalinist universe. The union and civil rights movements, too, had “brothers” and “sisters” who were, conceptually, equal partners in the struggle. Such terms of greeting had in them the germs of an alternative political morality to both the liberal and conservative parent-based metaphors. Today, however, we have no metaphors for such relationships. The defeat of the socialist, union, and other radical social movements was, among other things, a destruction of the very metaphors we need in order to imagine the “better world” that we intuitively believe is possible.
One of the essential tasks of the radical democratic left is to create new metaphors of a society of equals dedicated to taking care of each other and to struggling together for a better world for all. For better worlds are only created by those who can imagine their possibility, and imagination, we now understand well, thanks to Lakoff and others, is based on metaphors deeply encoded in our thought patterns.
In any case, these new findings on parenting and political orientation constitute yet another of a series of recent findings indicating that political attitudes and behaviors are as influenced by emotional factors as by rational arguments. Psychologist Drew Westin, for example, recently reported that political partisans were largely oblivious to arguments that contradicted their beliefs, while being finely attuned to arguments suggesting hypocrisy by those with opposite political views. Further, brain scans have suggested that when these partisans were confronted with evidence and arguments critical of their political views, the circuits that were activated in the partisans’ brains were those connected to emotional arousal and not those associated with rational thought.
A dedication to rational discourse and an aversion to manipulation of people doesn’t imply that activists should remain oblivious to the psychological factors that influence how their messages are perceived, or whether they are perceived at all. Rather, activists need to find ways to present our arguments in ways that arouse both the emotion-processing and rational thinking parts of brains, for we need both passion and reason on our side to change deeply entrenched conventional views.
Notes  http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/19/weekinreview/19leon.html  http://www.livescience.com/othernews/060124_political_decisions.html
Stephen Soldz, [email protected], is psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Institute for the Study of Violence of the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He is a member of Roslindale Neighbors for Peace and Justice and founder of Psychoanalysts for Peace and Justice. He maintains the Iraq Occupation and Resistance Report web page, http://psychoanalystsopposewar.org/ORR.htm, and the Psyche, Science, and Society blog, http://psychoanalystsopposewar.org/blog/.