Is fatherhood political?
As we celebrate Father’s Day in this unlike-anything-we-have-ever-seen election year, Republicans and Democrats continue to grow further apart in terms of their views on candidates, policies and political events. And our research suggests that even being a dad isn’t immune from that trend.
Using data from a recent Pew Research Center survey of American families, we were able to explore in detail how family structure and attitudes shape and are shaped by contemporary politics. In a nationally representative sample, mothers and fathers were asked whether they identified with the Republican or Democratic party, as well as a series of questions about their roles as parents. We uncovered some interesting results regarding mothers: For example, Republican moms are just as likely to be in the workforce as their Democratic counterparts, but they feel less comfortable about it. Our most intriguing findings, though, had to do with fathers. Red and blue fathers are different from one another — and similar to one another — in some unexpected and provocative ways.
First, the similarities. The oft-repeated stereotypes about red states and blue states hold that liberals are more likely to start families later in life, once both parents have established their careers, while parents in conservative states have children at a younger age and have many more of them. But we found that Republican and Democratic fathers closely resemble one another in terms of the structure of their families. Republican and Democratic dads have the same number of children, an average of 2.4, and on average they start their families at the same age: 28. They are also equally likely to be employed. In other words, the demographic data tells a story of very similar fathers in the two parties.
Where Republican and Democratic dads differ, though, is in their perceptions of the appropriate role of fathers and how they assess their own performance.
Republican dads rate the job they are doing as parents very highly, significantly higher than Democratic fathers rate themselves. This is true even though Republican fathers report spending less time with their children and delegating more of the responsibility of child-rearing to their wives than Democratic fathers do. Republican fathers also embrace a more authoritarian view of parenting than Democratic men: They are more likely to emphasize obedience and good manners in their children over curiosity and self-reliance. (Their embrace of an authoritarian parenting style is not all that surprising, given the well-established link between authoritarian values and Republican identification.)
Both Republican and Democratic dads admit that their wives take on the majority of the responsibility for raising children. Compared with what Republican dads say, however, Democratic fathers see themselves as parenting in a manner much closer to the shared child-care model, in which each spouse handles roughly half of the child-rearing responsibilities. Still, Democratic dads give themselves significantly lower marks as parents than Republican fathers. They are also more likely than Republican dads to report feeling that balancing work and family is very difficult.
In other words, Republican fathers feel good about their role as parents; Democratic dads are much more conflicted.
What accounts for this divide? We might suspect some basic demographic differences between Democrats and Republicans — such as race, education, income, marital status and religious adherence — to be at work here, but our analysis takes these factors into account and finds that this is not the case. Rather, it is likely that the contrasts between Republican and Democratic fathers are rooted in their markedly different expectations about family life, which are in turn reinforced by the parties with which they identify.
Our previous book on parenthood and politics shows that over the past several decades, the parties have polarized on issues of parenthood. When we analyzed political rhetoric, we found that during the 1950s and 1960s — a time many consider the heyday of the American family — the major parties and their standard-bearers did not say much about parenthood and the family. In more recent years, however, the parties have politicized parenthood, and they have split over what the family should look like and what pro-family politics entails. The Republican Party has come to champion the traditional family and defend the value of stay-at-home mothers, while the Democratic Party has promoted policies such as more affordable child care and paid family leave that help mothers remain in the workforce, and has emphasized the need for gender equality in the public and private spheres. These contrasting views on family are endorsed by and reflected in parents in both parties.
Typical Republican fathers hold more traditional expectations about family life. They’re more likely than Democratic fathers to believe that it is best for children and families when Mom is not working outside the home, and that it is better for fathers to be in the workplace full-time. Although the idea that good fathers should be economic providers for their families is fairly universal in our culture, our research shows that this notion resonates more strongly with Republican men. And again, our research shows that Republican fathers are more comfortable than Democrats in leaving the day-to-day work of raising children — getting the kids on the bus, making the doctor’s appointments, applying the sunscreen, organizing the playdates — to their wives. As a result, Republican dads may feel less torn by efforts to try to balance work and family. By working, and by instilling the values of obedience and respect, they see themselves as good fathers.
Our research also shows that Democratic dads possess more egalitarian — and less authoritarian — attitudes about parenting. Perhaps because they expect more from themselves as direct caregivers, they are less satisfied with themselves as parents: They are doing more of the diaper changing, bedtime-story reading and carpooling than their Republican counterparts, but they still don’t feel that they are spending as much time with their kids as they would like. When Democratic dads are asked how much they struggle with work-family balance, their answers sound more like what working moms say in response to those questions. Republican fathers, in contrast, stand out as distinctively less conflicted by the issue. They set a different bar for themselves in parenting their children and are happier with their performance as a result.
So this Sunday, as fathers tend to the family barbecue or head to the ballpark with their kids, it might be worth remembering that the personal is indeed political. Turns out the very act of being a dad has taken on the same red and blue partisan stripes as the rest of the nation.
Steven Greene is a professor of political science at North Carolina State University. Laurel Elder is a professor of political science at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y.