Like States, American Families Are Blue and Red

Political scientists say your father has a lot to answer for.

The shading of the American map into “Red States” and “Blue States” has become so accepted by the voters and the talking heads that hector them that it’s easy to forget these distinctions are fluid. One almost credits the redness of the Mississippi dirt to voting records rather than iron ore. It’s a collective fiction, but collective fictions can beget real facts. And the self-conscious sorting of America down political lines has absolutely affected Americans by affecting American family dynamics.

For a 2016 paper published in the journal Political Psychology, Jeffrey Lyons, a political science associate professor at Boise State, examined how competing social influences affect someone’s political beliefs over the course of their life. He examined data from the Youth-Parent Socialization Study, a long-term study tracking the influence of parents on their children’s politics from 1965 to 1997 — an outdated work to be sure, but currently the best data on the subject that political scientists have. He found parental influence to be the single strongest indicator of one’s eventual party affiliation. In 1965, when basically all the subjects were 18 years old, community attitudes basically didn’t matter at all. What mattered were their parents.

This finding was in keeping with accepted political science, but Lyons parts from the established consensus on the idea that attitudes necessarily crystallize in peoples’ 20s and 30s.

“They basically say you’re shaped early in life, you become stable, and you’re kind of set on a trajectory,” says Lyons. “What that suggests is that we kind of forget about the social side of things later in life. What I’m saying is that we need to keep looking at how socialization affects the conversation later in life — we shouldn’t just be talking about it for adolescents and young adults.”

Parents have about a six- to eight-year window in which they are the most powerful force in the forming of their children’s partisanship. While this leaves an impression, children are subsequently put into social situations that tend to change their perspectives. Lyons found that the most influential agent for forming party affiliations was, after the early family unit, one’s spouse. The Youth-Parent Socialization Study revealed that, by age 35, the spouse is more influential than either parent was on the subject at age 18. Proximity doesn’t only affect children.

“We do see really close associations typically between spousal political attitudes,” says Lyons. “That’s a really tricky thing to figure out what’s going on — is it the fact that people just marry somebody like them, or is it that you actually become more like your spouse over time? There’s some conflicting evidence on that.”

If you love President Obama, your kids probably do too.

Wikimedia Commons

These influences — a family, a spouse — serve as the microenvironment of somebody’s world. But while intimate ties are the most influential factors on political beliefs, we can’t forget the macro - - environmental pressures like actual cities and states where people live. In earlier research, Lyons looked at what happens to the attitudes of Republicans and Democrats who move from a county that’s reflective of their political beliefs to one that is not. He found that, at the end of a four-year timespan, about 15 to 20 percent of people would actually switch to the party of their adopted home.

“When we look at somebody who moves from Texas to Massachusetts, we see them kind of getting pulled into a more liberal direction,” says Lyons. “One thing I’ve done is look at county-level data and try to figure out why, for example, if your county environment becomes more democratic your political attitudes are likely to become more democratic. Is it something like, ‘I don’t want to be the one Republican in Cambridge, Massachusetts?’ I think the exact why is still up in the air.”

Kids "vote" at Civic Fest in Minneapolis, Minnesota.


What we do know is that different United States regions seem to have been colonized by groups with different psychological profiles. In 2013, the American Psychological Association published an analysis of the psychological traits of 1.5 million Americans. Data collected over a 12-year period helped the psychologists identify three psychological profiles pegged to the different regions. Traits like being temperamental and uninhibited were pinpointed to New Englanders and Mid-Atlantic residents, Southerners and Midwesterners proved to be the most conventional and friendly, while East and West coast folk were found to be relaxed and creative.

Personality traits, says Lyons, can be tied to the competing belief systems. Research confirms this: Conservatives value social belonging while liberals are more autonomous. Liberals care more about fairness while conservatives care about safety. Conservative tend to be more methodical while the cognitive process of liberals is often “realization” centric. These traits — going back to the idea of familial interest — appear to set in early: A 2006 study in the Journal of Research in Personality found that childhood personality during preschool accurately predicted conservatism in adulthood.

In other words, parents shape their children’s long-term politics by shaping their children’s personalities. And those personalities play into where people live. And where people live often has a lot to do with how parents decide to raise their children.

It’s worth noting that researchers Laurel Elder and Steven Greene have thoroughly demonstrated that Republican and Democratic families aren’t particularly different. They have kids at the same time, average the same number of kids, and break up labor in similar way. The main difference is how the fathers conceptualize their roles: Democratic fathers struggle more with having a work-family balance, and appear to be less satisfied with themselves as parents. Republican fathers embrace traditional parenting roles and rate themselves more highly as paternal figures.

Party affiliation by state.


Different sorts of fathers create different sort of children. And different sorts of children become different sorts of adults. Then they self-sort. Does this mean that red stays red? No, but it does mean that American kids are likely to inherit a worldview strongly correlated to their physical location. It means that growing up in an Alabama family in Alabama leaves a mark in a way that growing up in an Alabama family in Massachusetts wouldn’t — not that such a scenario would be likely to begin with.

Lyons believes that if another Youth-Parent Socialization Study started today, the results would be broadly similar to the one that started in 1968. While the internet allows for the more efficient distribution of information, data indicates that personal connections are still the most powerful force in shaping one’s mind.

“We could probably find even stronger effects because now, we have more homogenous communities on average,” says Lyons. “There’s been this sort of deepening of red and blue and diminishing of purple in America.”

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