Demography is Still Not Destiny

by Kieran Healy on August 24, 2006

Via PZ Myers, I see that the idea that liberals are going to be outbred by conservatives has made it to the Wall Street Journal. PZ deals with some questions about the growth rates cited in the piece. But of course it’s not just about the math—“liberal” and “conservative” are not exactly stable features of a population with respect to their content. About six months ago I wrote about a similar claim from Philip Longman. Here’s what I said then.

A bit of nonsense from Philip Longman by way of Daniel Drezner, about how conservatives are going to out-reproduce liberals:

It’s a pattern found throughout the world, and it augers a far more conservative future — one in which patriarchy and other traditional values make a comeback … Childlessness and small families are increasingly the norm today among progressive secularists. As a consequence, an increasing share of all children born into the world are descended from a share of the population whose conservative values have led them to raise large families. … This dynamic helps explain the gradual drift of American culture toward religious fundamentalism and social conservatism. Among states that voted for President Bush in 2004, the average fertility rate is more than 11% higher than the rate of states for Sen. John Kerry. … Tomorrow’s children, therefore, unlike members of the postwar baby boom generation, will be for the most part descendants of a comparatively narrow and culturally conservative segment of society. To be sure, some members of the rising generation may reject their parents’ values, as often happens. But when they look for fellow secularists with whom to make common cause, they will find that most of their would-be fellow travelers were quite literally never born.

There are several standard objections to this kind of line. One is that it’s always been with us: someone’s always worried that group x are breeding like flies. (Indeed, Longman even quotes Oswald Spengler on the decline of civilization by way of reproductive enervation.) A second is that it ignores the dynamics of rebellion against one’s parents. Longman tries to avoid this one by saying that prospective liberal rebels from conservative families will have no secularist “fellow-travelers” to back them up, but why should they need them in the first place? Third, the terms “conservative” and “liberal” are moving targets. Even assuming all the kids of conservative parents grow up relatively conservative, does this mean they’ll hold the same substantive views as their forebears? Insofar as there has been any drift in generally shared ideas, it seems to have been in the direction of adopting views that would have been considered liberal or radical in previous generations, not ones that would have been thought conservative or reactionary.

Finally, as Simmel and Durkheim pointed out, in modern societies more people means more differentiation, more differentiation means more social roles, and roles are the raw material that you make individual identities from. The result is increased variability on all sorts of social dimensions, from musical taste to political views. More people, in short, means more kinds of people—or, from an individual’s point of view, more choices about the sort of person you can be. For example, if Salt Lake City continues to grow and fill with young people, increased social heterogeneity is more or less inevitable—even more so if these new people are geographically mobile and well-educated. That doesn’t tell you which political views are likely to thrive or die out or change. But it should make you skeptical of the idea that a stable set of political preferences is likely to become dominant just because one group is having a lot of children.

On the other hand, it would be pretty funny if Longman were right and conservative christianity became dominant in the U.S. for essentially Darwinian reasons of reproductive success and relative fitness.

{ 36 comments }

1

mpowell 08.24.06 at 11:30 am

…funny?

2

SamChevre 08.24.06 at 11:31 am

Conservative has several dimensions; I think demographics matter more in some than in others.

I have several friends who grew up in family-friendly, religiously conservative communities who are homosexual. They identify as politically liberal, but in many ways, they are still conservative. Yes, they are pro-choice and pro-gay marriage. BUT–they are also very pro-children, see communities as permanent, and in many cases are fairly clearly on the “inherited obligation family” side of the inherited vs chosen obligation debate. (If that reference isn’t clear, read Doug Muder’s “Red Family, Blue Family”; it’s the most insightful piece of political sociology I’ve seen in years). In many real-life ways, they are more conservative than the mobile professional Republicans from areas like Northern Virginia.

3

Kieran Healy 08.24.06 at 11:32 am

…funny?

For some values of funny.

4

Russell Arben Fox 08.24.06 at 11:53 am

“For example, if Salt Lake City continues to grow and fill with young people, increased social heterogeneity is more or less inevitable—even more so if these new people are geographically mobile and well-educated.”

Kieran, this seems to make perfect sense, but how does it account for–or can it account for–the apparent continuing dominance of socially conservative views in parts of socially conservative “Red” America that have nonetheless, in recent decades, great urbanized and yuppified? (I’m thinking of Colorado Springs, Dallas, etc.) Is social role production being inhibited by surrounding external forces (gerrymandering?), or is it just taking a long while, or are socially conservative views being adopted by the younger inhabitants and move-ins just randomly? Or (and this is my suspicion), might contemporary, religiously grounded, American social conservatism has stumbled into a way of incorporating higher levels of education and mobility without resulting in the sort of secular differentiation that Simmel and Durkheim postulated?

5

tj 08.24.06 at 12:01 pm

Can we avoiding using the term “family-friendly” when contrasting conservatives and liberals? Conservatives are in no way more friendly to families than liberals. Obvious, no?

6

joan 08.24.06 at 12:23 pm

I find it ironic that conservatives can claim at the same time that: (1) They chose their conservatives beliefs because they more rational than liberals. (2) The next generation will choose conservative beliefs as children, well before the age of which they are capable of reason. No doubt these children will also adopt the belief that they are more rational.

7

Martin James 08.24.06 at 12:40 pm

Kieran,

A couple points.

First even Utah has its blue areas and red areas. Salt Lake City actually has fewer children than it had 30 years ago and it is also solidly democrat. Other areas in Utah that are younger and are growing are much more Republican.

The second point is a question about population growth and roles within a culture compared to the number of cultures.

As, world population has grown tremendously the number of languages has not grown but decreased. Another example, might be that political parties in the USA have not differentiated radically with population growth.

So, for example, will population growth in coutries with a predominat religion (say, Islam)produce the same kind of religious differentiation as population growth in religously pluralistic countries?

It seems obvious to me that cultural diffrentiation is not genetic, but also obvious that fertility can affect cultural growth in terms of population.

I think its fair to say that we are really in unchartered territory biologically in terms of human populations.

8

SamChevre 08.24.06 at 1:27 pm

tj,

I’d be happy to avoid using “family-friendly” if I knew a good alternative. Do you have any suggestions for the following set of policy/population characteristics?

1) Assumes that married biological parents are best for children
2) Assumes that within marriage, children are desirable and normal
3) Accomodate children within the structure of life choices characterizing the community
4) Assumes that families are fundamental to all other social structures

9

Crystal 08.24.06 at 1:32 pm

A couple of things: First, it’s arrant nonsense to say that people’s beliefs are always in lockstep with their parents’. Most people question and often go against their parents’ beliefs – I doubt that all the white people working on behalf of civil rights in the 1960’s were brought up by liberal, tolerant parents. And no doubt Henry VIII was reared to be a nice Catholic boy. People don’t inherit political beliefs like they do height or eye color.

Second, Kieran’s point that what is “conservative” and what is “liberal” is subject to change with the times, is borne out by social surveys such as those conducted by Pew Research. These surveys show that attitudes once limited to radical chicsters – acceptance of interracial marriage, concern for the environment – are now mainstream. Even conservative Christian women aspire to careers other than teaching or nursing. Attitudes that were considered revolutionary – and shocked the older generations! – in the 1960’s are mainstream today. A lot of people who are against gay marriage still believe gays shouldn’t be discriminated against in jobs or housing.

What is sad is that articles like this pass for “social science” in the mainstream media. There is more pop sociobiology and half-baked genetic determinism out there than you can shake a stick at.

10

P O'Neill 08.24.06 at 1:38 pm

James Taranto at the WSJ peddles related shite under the rubric “the Roe effect” — that the population of liberals is reduced by abortion, since liberals are more likely to have abortion.

11

tj 08.24.06 at 2:01 pm

samchevre,

I meant to suggest that the term “family-friendly” is not helpful in distinguishing between conservative and liberal attitudes towards family. Using it in this context is simply perpetuating a pretty vicious form of political rhetoric used to slur those of us on the left. (I’m personally so family-friendly I can hardly stand it.)

Your first two “policy/population characteristics” are a good example of the term’s limitations. I assume that both conservatives and liberals recognize that children are better off in stable homes and that this most often means with married, biological parents. I also assume that both liberals and conservatives recognize that sometimes living with biological parents is not an option, but that a family for these children can still be established and supported. #1 seems to imply that those you call family friendly are in fact less friendly to families outside of a pretty restrictive definition. #2 is not helpful in distinguishing between liberal and conservative views of family because most everybody recognizes having children within marriage is normal, and I’m pretty sure liberals don’t think having children within a marriage is undesirable. If you meant that having children within marriage is more desirable than having them outside of marriage, I’m not sure this attitude is particularly friendly to families. It is certainly hostile to those who have families without marriage.

Numbers 3 and 4 are pretty general. Supporting subsidized daycare for families in which both parents work seems to me to fulfill #3. #4 seems to be a way of translating some general notion of families underpinning Western Civilization into sociological jargon.

Maybe instead of “family friendly” you should just say people who don’t like gay, single, or unmarried parents. Or working mothers, etc.

12

Functional 08.24.06 at 3:32 pm

“I assume that both conservatives and liberals recognize that children are better off in stable homes and that this most often means with married, biological parents.”

If liberals really believe this, it is only because they have finally given in to the massive weight of empirical evidence on the issue. Are you old enough to remember the Murphy Brown/Dan Quayle incident? Liberals were beside themselves with laughter/hysteria over Quayle’s argument that it isn’t ideal for society to have large numbers of single women producing fatherless children. How dare he suggest that single parenthood is in any way inferior? How quaint.

13

SamChevre 08.24.06 at 3:50 pm

TJ,

I’m not going to argue over whether “family-friendly” is an accurate term; like “pro-choice”, it’s well understood as shorthand for a particular outlook, which my intent was to describe accurately. However, it seems my description wasn’t entirely clear.

1) Married biological parents and their biological children–this is a description of what constitutes a “normal” family in the worldview normally described as “family-friendly”. Thus, whether a policy makes it easier for grandparents to pass on their wealth to their grandchildren is not relevant to its “family-friendliness”; nor is its effect on same-sex couples.

2) Child-friendly. This was my key point, and apparently wasn’t clear. If you see married parents with 5 children and an obviously pregnant wife, what’s your impulsive reaction? If it’s “Awesome” or “I’m envious”, you are probably part of a “family-friendly” community. If it’s “What were you two thinking?” you are probably not.

3) Some forms of subsidized day-care certainly are part of “accomodating children within life structures.” But if they function indirectly to make fewer children affordable for the normative families in #1, then they aren’t “family-friendly” in this sense of the term.

4) This really wasn’t intended to be confusing. My point was that in the “family-friendly” world, families with children are considered as of primary importance in setting rules for all institutions–from work schedules, to zoning laws, to what advertising is permissible where.

14

tj 08.24.06 at 3:55 pm

I do remember the Murphy Brown controversy and it still gives me a chuckle. You will notice that I did not say stable homes had to be composed of married, biological parents. I was simply noting that this is often the case. The problem with the Murphy Brown thing was that Quail was attacking single mothers. (It was funny because he was criticizing a fictional character, which reinforced his image as a ridiculous person.) (Also, no child is fatherless…yet. Give liberal scientists time and Dan Quail’s hellish vision will be fulfilled.) Quail’s attack was not pro-family–Murphy Brown did not snatch her child from an existing, superior family–but hostile to a particular type of family. Maybe those laughing liberals thought that stigmatizing single mothers was not likely to lead to a better society.

15

tj 08.24.06 at 4:26 pm

SamChevre

Fair enough. I really do object to the term, though. It may in fact be an accepted shorthand for a particular set of political beliefs, but I’m not convinced it’s as established as “pro-choice” and I believe it is more problematic. While people who identify as pro-life may object to the positive connotations of “pro-choice,” they must admit that they do fit the label of anti-choice (in the case of abortion) implied by the use of the term. I object the idea that I am family unfriendly because I do not agree with the political stance of those who call themselves family friendly. (This may be beside the point of this discussion if the policies of social conservatives are enacted and result in population growth and create more social conservatives. But I don’t think this is likely.)

I also don’t think the camps are quite as divided as point #2 implies. When I see large families I have both reactions, because I love children but also know how much work they can be. (I even like proto-conservative children.)

16

Jon H 08.24.06 at 4:45 pm

samchevre writes: ” This was my key point, and apparently wasn’t clear. If you see married parents with 5 children and an obviously pregnant wife, what’s your impulsive reaction? If it’s “Awesome” or “I’m envious”, you are probably part of a “family-friendly” community. If it’s “What were you two thinking?” you are probably not.”

Well, my reaction is that rabbits have the excuse of being stupid. What’s a person’s excuse for not using the brains God gave them? Be fruitful and multiply doesn’t mean to multiply like e. coli in a petri dish.

Moderation in all things applies also to number of children. It frankly starts to look extremely selfish 3 or so. When you get up into double digits, it starts looking like hoarding, like the people with 100 dogs.

And if people knowingly take on more children than they can *afford* to take care of, then they’re going to be taking food and charity from people who really need the help.

17

Jon H 08.24.06 at 4:48 pm

Oh, also, many allegedly “family friendly” types will go apoplectic if the couple with 5 kids is not white and affluent.

18

Jon H 08.24.06 at 4:49 pm

“My point was that in the “family-friendly” world, families with children are considered as of primary importance in setting rules for all institutions—from work schedules, to zoning laws, to what advertising is permissible where.”

Riiiiight. The GOP is not where you go to find support for family-friendly work environments.

19

Matt 08.24.06 at 4:55 pm

This argument, as usual for ‘higher birthrate means we’ll be overwhelmed’ arguments, ignores regression towards the mean. Here’s a testable hypothesis: the distribution of political affiliation of the grandparents of the children of politically conservative couples will be a better predictor of the children’s political views than the affiliation of the parents.

20

H. E. 08.24.06 at 6:46 pm

number of children…starts to look extremely selfish at 3 or so

I’ve heard that one–when I was pregnant with #3. I’d call that family-unfriendly. Most (middle-aged) people I know aren’t married and of those who are most are childless. Certainly having more than one absolutely perfect pet child is considered declasse where I come from.

Now I’m as blue as can be on virtually all social, economic and political issues. But I’m vexed that quite a few people seem to think that the lifestyle I like–living in a suburban house with multiple children–is selfish or in any case not for right-thinking, educated people like us.

21

joan 08.24.06 at 7:31 pm

I think the definition of family being used by conservatives means married couple. The presents of children in a household is neither necessary nor sufficient to qualify as a family. Perhaps marriage friendly would be a more accurate term.

22

tj 08.24.06 at 8:41 pm

Joan’s point makes me realize I may have painted myself into a corner. I don’t want to limit my criticism of the idea of “family-friendly” conservatives to their exclusion of nontraditional families. I also take issue with the idea that their policies are friendlier to traditional families. The social conservative agenda has the same drawbacks for people within heterosexual, legally sanctioned families as it does for those outside of such families. To the extent that the social conservative agenda acts as cover for fiscal conservatism or libertarianism, it seems to me it is detrimental to all types of families.

I’d also like to distance myself from any sort of criticism of large families. I don’t care how many kids people have.

23

turkish bill 08.25.06 at 4:45 am

I’d suggest that ‘hostile to (and sometimes punitive towards)members of non-traditional families’ captures the political position that Sam Chevre was trying to pick out.

Like he says of ‘family-friendly’ , it’s a good shorthand way of picking out a set of fairly easily recognised attitutdes.

I wonder whether it will catch on.

Incidentally, I’m fairly pro-marriage myself, even though I don’t fall inside the designated demographic.

24

ajay 08.25.06 at 5:15 am

tj: “Also, no child is fatherless…yet. Give liberal scientists time and Dan Quail’s hellish vision will be fulfilled.”

Fathers die, tj.

25

Half Sigma 08.25.06 at 5:39 am

Arthur Brooks is either stupid or has intentionally chosen to mislead. The General Social Survey shows that Democrats have more children than Republicans.

26

paul 08.25.06 at 6:29 am

jon h,
Until those liberal scientists devise a way of producing offspring in units of 0.1 child, 3 children is the smallest number that ensures the replacement rate is met, hardly selfish.

27

SamChevre 08.25.06 at 8:56 am

Jon H,

Re #17–many allegedly “family friendly” types will go apoplectic if the couple with 5 kids is not white and affluent–that is false and slanderously so. I would challenge you to provide even one quote to back it up.

Most married SAHM’s are from the working class–families with less than the median income (that’s census data and easily available). And I have lived almost all my life in the conservative Christian world, which is the biggest part of the family-friendly world–and every congregation I have been part of, in 3 different denominations, has been racially mixed and included interracial couples.

28

mds 08.25.06 at 9:28 am

And I have lived almost all my life in the conservative Christian world, which is the biggest part of the family-friendly world—and every congregation I have been part of, in 3 different denominations, has been racially mixed and included interracial couples.

As usual, the plural of anecdote is not data, but I have also lived almost all my life in the conservative Christian world, and have found it often still rife with Bob Jones-style bigotry. My parents remain hostile to interracial couples, because the Bible says the races shouldn’t mix…somewhere. They and many of their ilk amongst whom I grew up were ripe for President Reagan’s vicious attacks on welfare queens and their Cadillacs. Perhaps I missed the part where American fundamentalist Christians repudiated the racism of their Greatest President Ever. Then again, Pat Buchanan is a self-identified conservative Christian, and he has yet again been quite explicit that it’s white people who need to breed more.

And I still say that when the “greatest part” of the “family-friendly” world spews vitriol over families where the parents are the same sex, and rabidly seeks to criminalize them, your definition of “family friendly” is ever so slightly off.

29

Peter Levine 08.25.06 at 9:49 am

It’s arrant nonsense to say that people’s beliefs are always in lockstep with their parents’

“Always” would indeed be too strong. But people do tend to follow in their parents’ political footsteps. Kent Jennings and Richard Niemi have followed a cohort of people who were high school seniors in 1965 and also interviewed their parents and kids. They have found substantial transmission of parents’ party identifications to children over these three generations. The transmission was not perfect, and individuals tended to diverge more from their parents as they aged. Further, the actual content of what the two major parties stood for changed during the period of this study. Nevertheless, the degree to which parents’ political identities predicted their childrens’ and grand-childrens’ identities was striking.

That pattern could, however, be counteracted by “differentiation” and other social processes.

30

trotstky 08.25.06 at 9:58 am

I find my world is filled with the not-at-all-religious offspring of devout Mormon families. So the conservatives may have more kids, but just enough flee the fold to keep the political scales balanced.

31

eudoxis 08.25.06 at 10:10 am

The strongest correlation with voting gaps is race/ethnicity, followed by religion. At least one of those is not altered by the dynamic of rebellion against one’s parents. Plus, the fear of monolythic voting blocks breeding like flies is independent of the birth rate or voting patterns. Further, the moving target objection is irrelevant unless the polarized electorate starts voting the same and is no longer polarized, an unlikely prospect. What matters is where the demographics fall on the polarized range, not where that range finds itself in space.

32

stuart 08.25.06 at 11:07 am

Doesn’t that rather depend whether your aim is to be ‘on the winning side’ or ‘in a better society’ (by your own measure)?

33

Mary Catherine Moran 08.25.06 at 9:58 pm

One is that it’s always been with us: someone’s always worried that group x are breeding like flies.

Good point. For example, back in the days of the Roman empire, you had these Phillip-Longman-in-a-toga types fretting and fussing about how the decadent Romans were being outbred by those hardy barbarians from the north, who might even overtake the seat of empire, if given half the chance, and…Oh, wait. I guess that ‘triumph of barbarism and religion’ thing really did happen, back in that day.

Just saying.

Demography is not destiny, to be sure. But at the same time, there is not much destiny without demography, which is to say, without a demographic base. In the long term, it’s a numbers game. If you can’t reproduce yourself (and I’m not talking about genes here, I’m talking about the reproduction of culture), you’re out of the game but good. It’s been known to happen.

34

Jon H 08.26.06 at 7:14 pm

samchevre writes: “that is false and slanderously so. I would challenge you to provide even one quote to back it up.”

Slanderous? You seem to have blotted from your memory all the Rush Limbaugh-quality complaints about welfare queens being paid to have more children.

35

Jon H 08.26.06 at 7:22 pm

I wrote: “number of children…starts to look extremely selfish at 3 or so”

Sorry, what I was thinking was “selfish *over* 3 or so.” My best friend has 3 (including twins), I have a sister and brother, etc. 3 is pretty normal. “or so” means 4 would usually be okay, but half a dozen is pushing it. More than six and you’re definitely getting into vanity and self-aggrandizement, IMHO. More than 10, and you’re into hoarding and it’s probably due to having your reason damaged by religion or illness.

The historical reasons for having big families don’t exist anymore in the first world. Kids are unlikely to die young, and they aren’t needed as extra hands to work the farm. It made sense when you never knew how many kids would survive to adulthood.

At the very least, people who want a big family could *adopt* number 4, 5, and 6.

36

SamChevre 08.28.06 at 8:45 am

Jon H,

You are apparently totally unfamiliar with welfare rules (the old AFDC rules). It was almost impossible for married couples to qualify.

So no, Limbaugh quotes on “welfare queens” don’t help prove that the family “has to be white and affluent”. The family in question has to be (to repeat) “married, raising their biological children”–which plenty of non-whites are, and plenty of working-class people are, and about which I have, I repeat, never heard any complaints in the religiously conservative world.

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