Would you rather have kids who are respectful of their elders, obedient, and well-behaved or children who are independent, curious, and self-reliant? Knowing what type of attitudes Americans would like their children to possess tells us more than you can imagine about their politics. Not only does it reveal their preferences about almost all the hot-button issues facing the country (race, immigration, gender equality, God, guns, terrorism, and more), it even structures their partisanship.
This development is new and it is important. Our research demonstrates that child-rearing priorities had little correlation with Americans’ partisan identities as recently as the 1990s. But in today’s world, where culture-war issues dominate the political landscape, child-rearing priorities and party are now tightly intertwined, making the partisan divide so deep and intense that it has become all but intractable. Moreover, these specific values are critically important to understanding voters beyond the US.
Over the past several years, candidates espousing right-wing populist views such as the virtues of nationalism, the perils of globalism, and distaste for immigrants have been flourishing in countries as diverse as Denmark, Germany, France, Austria, Hungary, Poland, Guatemala, and Peru.
This October, Jair Bolsonaro won a landslide victory in Brazil’s presidential election on a brazenly racist, sexist, and anti-LGBTQ platform with an affinity for law-and-order and nationalism. Meanwhile, Britain continues to march toward Brexit following the shocking referendum vote to leave the European Union two years ago.
The group of us are scholars from two separate research teams who have been studying the same thing: the rise of right-wing populism across the US, Europe, and Latin America. Although our two teams were not working in tandem, the two of us studying the US and Europe and the four of us working on Latin America uncovered the same pattern across three continents and myriad political circumstances: The qualities that citizens think are most important in children explain whether or not they voted for these right-wing populists.
Those who favor traditional characteristics like respect for elders, obedience, and good manners flock to them. Those who favor independence, self-reliance, and curiosity are repelled by them.
Why? Because these preferences help to reveal people’s worldviews — whether they think the world is a safe place to explore, or a dangerous place to protect oneself against.
Across the US, Europe, and South America, we’ve surveyed tens of thousands of people of voting age over the past several years in dozens of countries, asking them about a wide range of topics concerning politics.
Among these questions was a set that, on the surface, appears to have nothing to do with politics at all: child-rearing values. We introduce the questions the same way in each country: “Although there are a number of qualities that people feel that children should have, every person thinks that some are more important than others.” We then asked them to choose what they valued most: respect for elders or independence; obedience or self-reliance; being well-behaved or being curious.
The Latin America research team revealed that only about 10 percent of those who favored independent, self-reliant, and curious kids voted for Bolsonaro during the first round election. Among Brazilians who favored respectful, obedient, and good-mannered kids, four times as many chose Bolsonaro.
Across Latin America in recent years, people who prefer obedient, disciplined children have voted consistently for right-wing populists such as Porfirio Lobo in Honduras and Otto Perez Molina in Guatemala.
In Germany, France, and Britain, the Europe/North America research team found the same pattern. Those who favored traditional qualities in children (respect, obedience, and good behavior) were about 30 percentage points more likely to vote for right-wing populist parties such as Germany’s Alternative for Germany, or AfD, and France’s National Front than those who favored more modern qualities (independence, self-reliance, and curiosity).
The gap was similar between “remain” and “leave” voters during Brexit. In the US, the difference was even larger — about 50 points when the choice was between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
This relationship might seem at first like a random correlation, but it’s far from it. We believe that these child-rearing ideas capture people’s unreported worldviews — their deep-seated understanding of how the world works and what a good society ought to be. Throughout all human history, people have had worldviews. But they haven’t always been connected to politics like they are now in the US, and, increasingly, the rest of the world.
When the central focus of political conflict was economic — how much government ought to spend and how tightly it ought to regulate business, as it was in the US for most of the 20th century — this worldview did little to structure that conflict. There is no reason to think that how wary a person is about the dangers lurking in the world ought to have anything to do with how much they think the government ought to spend on highways or the merits they see in the free enterprise system.
As American party conflict shifted in the late 20th and early 21st century toward racial and gender equality, sexual orientation, immigration, various religious matters, and how best to remain safe from terrorism, the dividing lines changed. People’s deeply ingrained worldviews about the relative safety of these dramatic social changes and the world around us, in general, evolved into the key pivot between Republicans and Democrats.
The worldview of those who value traditional qualities in children is that the world is dangerous. It is best to keep children, and by extension society, on the straight and narrow. To them, the rapid political and cultural changes occurring around them — including increasing demographic diversity and sexual expression — pose a threat. They yearn for a simpler time, perhaps an imagined past, when life seemed more secure.
Their response is to try to impose order on their political system, much like parents might want to impose order on a chaotic household by emphasizing the qualities of respect, obedience, and good manners in children. Although a preference for traditional qualities in children is fine when managing a household — families, after all, are not democracies and children are not political citizens — imposing them on the political sphere is not entirely benign.
Those who prefer obedient, respectful children tend to be less concerned about bedrock democratic principles like free speech and a free press, which can, of course, produce disagreement. They are more open to a strongman leader who might not heed the legislature or judiciary, but who promises a more orderly society.
No matter where they pop up, right-wing populists use a core set of strategies that appeal to a worldview that desires order and predictability. They disparage challengers of traditional hierarchy, including women, racial and ethnic minorities, and LGBTQ people. They advocate granting police wide latitude to weaken social movements that could upset the status quo. And they highlight the potential perils of immigrants — outsiders — in the country.
We are, frankly, alarmed. Most citizens don’t want to live under authoritarian governments that rig or cancel elections. Few citizens clamor for military dictatorships. To use the most extreme example, Germans didn’t vote for Adolph Hitler because he promised to end democracy.
But when people feel like chaos is descending on their society and threats from the outside are ubiquitous, they are willing to turn a blind eye to growing authoritarianism in the interest of the instituting a more “orderly” society.
Democracy is inherently fragile. When right wing-populists find their way into office, the door is open to backsliding on the freedoms and protections of modern democracy as long as it’s done in the name of providing order or harkening back to a time that the country was great.
Charting a way forward in this tumultuous time will not be easy. This moment in history teaches us that democracy has always implicitly depended on political leaders hewing to democratic norms rather than sowing antagonism against society’s vulnerable for political gain and labeling press criticism as fake news.
The human condition is to value order — we see that in people’s parenting preferences, where most tend toward “traditional” parenting values. (Though a minority scored very high on traditional values — this was the group most likely to vote for right-wing populist candidates.) And, importantly, very few scored high on valuing “modern” qualities.
Because they like tidiness in their kids, they are going to like tidiness in the political sphere. Since this worldview is deeply ingrained in people, the public is unlikely to be the actor that protects the messiness inherent in democracy.
Hence leaders across the political spectrum need to recognize that they’re no longer dealing with politics as usual. The temptation to ignore democratic principles for electoral gain must be fought at all costs. A resolute commitment to addressing security needs while also respecting democratic principles, transparent government, and a real voice for ordinary people, Pollyanna though it might seem, remains the foundation for a politics capable of thwarting the temptations of authoritarianism and demonization.
Marc J. Hetherington is the Raymond Dawson Bicentennial professor of political science at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and co-author of Prius or Pickup?: How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide.
Jonathan Weiler is a teaching associate professor of global studies at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and co-author of Prius or Pickup?: How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide
Amy Erica Smith is an associate professor of political science at Iowa State University and author of Religion and Brazilian Democracy: Mobilizing the People of God (2019, Cambridge University Press).
Mason W. Moseley, Matthew L. Layton, and Mollie J. Cohen contributed to this article.