The Liberal/Conservative Fertility Gap
- Liberal politics will prove fruitless as long as liberals refuse to
LIBERAL BABY PROBLEM: CONSERVATIVES MORE FERTILE
ARTHUR C. BROOKS
Tuesday, August 22, 2006
The midterm election looms, and once again efforts begin afresh to
increase voter participation. It has become standard wisdom in
American politics that voter turnout is synonymous with good
citizenship, justifying just about any scheme to get people to the
polls. Arizona is even considering a voter lottery, in which all
voters are automatically registered for a $1 million giveaway. Polling
places and liquor stores in Arizona will now have something in common.
On the political left, raising the youth vote is one of the most
common goals. This implicitly plays to the tired old axiom that a
person under 30 who is not a liberal has no heart (whereas one who is
still a liberal after 30 has no head). The trouble is, while most "get
out the vote" campaigns targeting young people are proxies for the
Democratic Party, these efforts haven't apparently done much to win
elections for the Democrats. The explanation we often hear from the
left is that the new young Democrats are more than counterbalanced by
voters scared up by the Republicans on "cultural issues" like
abortion, gun rights and gay marriage.
But the data on young Americans tell a different story. Simply put,
liberals have a big baby problem: They're not having enough of them,
they haven't for a long time, and their pool of potential new voters
is suffering as a result. According to the 2004 General Social Survey,
if you picked 100 unrelated politically liberal adults at random, you
would find that they had, between them, 147 children. If you picked
100 conservatives, you would find 208 kids. That's a "fertility gap"
of 41%. Given that about 80% of people with an identifiable party
preference grow up to vote the same way as their parents, this gap
translates into lots more little Republicans than little Democrats to
vote in future elections. Over the past 30 years this gap has not been
below 20%--explaining, to a large extent, the current ineffectiveness
of liberal youth voter campaigns today.
Alarmingly for the Democrats, the gap is widening at a bit more than
half a percentage point per year, meaning that today's problem is
nothing compared to what the future will most likely hold. Consider
future presidential elections in a swing state (like Ohio), and assume
that the current patterns in fertility continue. A state that was
split 50-50 between left and right in 2004 will tilt right by 2012,
54% to 46%. By 2020, it will be certifiably right-wing, 59% to 41%. A
state that is currently 55-45 in favor of liberals (like California)
will be 54-46 in favor of conservatives by 2020--and all for no other
reason than babies.
The fertility gap doesn't budge when we correct for factors like age,
income, education, sex, race--or even religion. Indeed, if a
conservative and a liberal are identical in all these ways, the
liberal will still be 19 percentage points more likely to be childless
than the conservative. Some believe the gap reflects an authentic
cultural difference between left and right in America today. As one
liberal columnist in a major paper graphically put it, "Maybe the
scales are tipping to the neoconservative, homogenous right in our
culture simply because they tend not to give much of a damn for the
ramifications of wanton breeding and environmental destruction and
pious sanctimony, whereas those on the left actually seem to give a
whit for the health of the planet and the dire effects of
overpopulation." It would appear liberals have been quite successful
controlling overpopulation--in the Democratic Party.
Of course, politics depends on a lot more than underlying ideology.
People vote for politicians, not parties. Lots of people are neither
liberal nor conservative, but rather vote on the basis of
personalities and specific issues. But all things considered, if the
Democrats continue to appeal to liberals and the Republicans to
conservatives, getting out the youth vote may be increasingly an
exercise in futility for the American left.
Democratic politicians may have no more babies left to kiss.
Mr. Brooks, a professor at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of
Public Affairs, is the author of "Who Really Cares: The Surprising
Truth About Compassionate Conservatism," forthcoming from Basic Books.
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