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Authoritarian Parenting and Polarization in Politics

Does parenting style influence how we vote?

 Mila May/Shutterstock
Source: Mila May/Shutterstock

How we view the treatment of children may be connected to our choices in political candidates. I certainly do not claim to be a political analyst and I am not making a political statement, but there is some interesting research connecting parenting styles and political views that influence how people vote.

For example, an authoritarian parent is one who wants to win and be right, wants things their way or the highway, and is not interested in encouraging their children to have a voice or to develop independent self-evolution. This style is usually the kind of parent who rules with either an iron hand or with manipulation, guilt, shaming, and humiliation, both extremes creating the same outcome: an under-developed or stunted emotional growth in the child. Healthy parents care about their child’s feelings, encourage critical thinking, asking questions, and want their children to evolve into independent and self-reliant adults. Independent, self-reliant adults who think for themselves are less likely, I believe, to be attracted to authoritarianism in general.

How does this relate to politics and our political culture today of increasing and disturbing polarization in world views? I was struck by an interview I saw recently on the Fareed Zakaria show on CNN. Fareed was interviewing Jonathan Weiler, co-author of Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics. Jonathan Weiler is also a professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and teaches curriculum and global studies. I had the pleasure of interviewing him recently and found his studies to be fascinating. He told me that the study of authoritarianism is several decades long and, interestingly, that over time the way social scientists identified authoritarianism evolved to asking questions about parenting. He said, “What makes these questions interesting is that they are not really about parenting, they are more about people’s idealized understanding of social order or social hierarchy. Asking about parenting is more a way to get people to think about this.”

Jonathan's study uses four parenting questions that have been used before in this kind of study. He shared that, in 1992, Republicans and Democrats were not that distinctly different in their parenting answers, but in the last generation, the different world views have increasingly become more sorted out, showing that less authoritarian views move towards Democrats and more authoritarian views move towards Republicans. He believes this has contributed towards the increasing polarization in our politics today.

More authoritarian views are less tolerant of differences such as gay rights, minority groups, and anything they view as “different” than how they see the “real” American. Authoritarians like very simple, and clear messages and want to impose simple, clear solutions to complex problems. It is more black and white thinking as opposed to treating complex problems with more depth, questioning, and understanding.

Authoritarian parents are more likely to say, “You do as I say, not as I do”; “Children are to be seen and not heard”; or “Don’t question me, I am the parent.” The children of these kinds of families have little to no voice in what happens in their familial worlds. They are encouraged to keep up the “image” of the perfect family and the parents use very tight and rigid messages to make this happen.

Although Jonathan Weiler clearly stated in this interview that the clear data is not available to make a correlation to parenting styles, “there is a very strong correlation between how individuals answer the following parenting questions and their political worldview.”

The four questions used in the study are interesting in themselves. You can see below the traits are such that you would want all of them, but the participants are asked to make a choice as to what is most important to them. The parents are asked the question, “Which do you think is more important for a child to have?":

  1. Respect for elders vs. independence
  2. Obedience vs. self-reliance
  3. Good manners vs. curiosity
  4. Being well behaved vs. being considerate

In the study, they determined that the authoritarian answers would be: respect for elders, obedience, good manners, and being well behaved.

If children are not encouraged to have a voice, they often grow up with crippling self-doubt. When kids are encouraged to “fit the mold of the family,” and not encouraged to develop their own sense of self, are they more likely to be attracted to other authoritarian points of view?

Weiler and Hetherington’s study on authoritarianism and polarization in American politics suggests that authoritarianism is connected to how people vote and make sense of the political world today.

A special thank you to Jonathan Weiler for this interesting interview. If you would like to watch his interview on the Fareed Zakaria show, see the link below.

On GPS: The rise of American authoritarianism?

This interview was conducted with Jonathan Weiler, Ph.D., co-author of Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

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