Charlie Neibergall / AP

On the Masthead forums, one of the most heated discussions is about political persuasion: Can members of one party convince others to change their minds? That got us thinking about where people’s political beliefs come from in the first place. For many, it’s the family, though it turns out home life can just as easily push children to disagree with their parents as agree. In today’s email, we’re examining the research on how, exactly, the family shapes political beliefs. (Speaking of the forums, scroll down for an excerpt from McKay Coppins’s AMA today.)


Where Party and the Family Meet

By Abdallah Fayyad

In his recent profile of Stephen Miller, McKay Coppins noted that President Donald Trump’s senior policy advisor didn’t come from far right, or even right-leaning, roots. Before he gained national media attention as a conservative campus-provocateur at Duke, Miller was raised by Democrats in Santa Monica, California, where Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama won an overwhelming majority of votes for president.

Miller’s story is a part of the answer to a question that political scientists have been posing for decades: How effective are parents at passing on their values to their children? Studies have shown that most children end up adopting their parents’ values, but Miller is hardly the first conservative to come from a liberal family—or vice versa. So what are the main factors that shape a child’s political attitudes, and what role do the parents actually play?

1. The earlier kids establish party affiliation, the harder it is to change

Jeffrey Lyons, a political science professor at Boise State University, found that roughly three-quarters of kids who have two parents of the same party will fall on the same end of the political spectrum as their parents. As kids are growing up, their parents have an enormous amount of power in shaping their views. “Things that happen early in life are really important for things that happen later,” Lyons said. And once someone adopts a party affiliation, it becomes far less likely for them to change their beliefs. “So if parents set kids down [a partisan] path early in life, it becomes more difficult to deviate,” Lyons said. “Once you tell yourself that you’re a Democrat or a Republican, you’re going to interpret information in a way that would reinforce those beliefs.”

2. The role of the parents is reduced by exposure to new environments and periods of turbulent politics

Not all parents are successful at socializing their kids, especially during times of political upheaval. “When we have really active political climates, the role of the parents diminishes,” Lyons said. That may be a result of political messaging that comes from outside the home, particularly when it exposes a child to new and different ideas at an early age.

In fact, moving away from home—whether to go to college, join the military, or take a job in another town—is one of the main factors that contribute to someone’s political attitudes. Going off to college is particularly important. “It turns out the more educated that children are, the less likely they are to adopt their parents’ values,” said Pete Hatemi, a political science professor at Penn State. That’s not necessarily a result of college campuses indoctrinating students to have more liberal sensibilities, as some people fear, but a result of an introduction to new ideas, people from different backgrounds, and environments that are distinct from students’ homes. It could make kids from liberal homes more conservative, as it did in Miller’s case where he further cemented his far-right sensibilities. “The parental environment constrains people,” Hatemi said. “It’s a double-edged sword for parents because they want their children to have access to a good education and be more successful at life, but they also want their children to be like them.”

3. Kids tend to become more liberal than their parents

Miller’s story is striking in part because he seems to buck a stereotype that young people are typically more socially liberal than their parents. But Hatemi’s research suggested there’s some truth to that stereotype. While there are many cases of a rightward shift among younger generations, Hatemi said that children more often diverge to the left than they do to the right. “The nature of conservatism is to conserve. It’s restrictive,” he said. As people interact with new ideas and people over the course of their life, “the probability of moving to the right is lower just because the number of environmental experiences that would expose people to new things would usually move them to the left.” While we are prone to be like our parents, Hatemi argued, we’re also unique. And that uniqueness isn’t really noticed until we begin to navigate new environments, and self-select our peers, teachers, and classes to naturally mesh with our attitudes.

4. Closeness matters. So does being politically active.

Hatemi told me that there’s some evidence to show that the intensity of a relationship with one’s parents—measured by factors like parental support, bonding, and the closeness of the relationship—are factors in determining how effective a parent is at transmitting their attitudes. And in cases where parents are on different ends of the political spectrum, Lyons said, there is some evidence that shows that children are more likely to adopt their mothers’ partisanship than their fathers’.

But when parents are more politically active, their kids will either grow up to enthusiastically adopt the same values, or will end up with strongly held opposing views. In other words, they’re less likely to be indifferent about politics. “If you have a really politicized home, that can go both ways,” Hatemi said. “It can make children more like or strongly dissimilar, because the political angst and rhetoric turns a lot of people off.”

5. It’s in the genes

While socialization and the environment that kids grow up in are profoundly important in shaping their values, political attitudes are, to a degree, also influenced by genetics. This is not to say that party identification is something that can be determined by looking at someone’s DNA, but that children inherit certain traits from their parents that affect the way they perceive the world. How a child’s emotions are triggered and the way that their hormones or defense systems are activated, for example, determine the way they process information. And that eventually translates to political attitudes.

The famous “Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart” found that twins raised apart from one another had as similar social attitudes to one another as twins who were raised together. So if parents pass down their emotions and hormones to their children who live in a similar environment, then it’s highly likely that the children’s views will resemble those of their parents.

6. Increasing polarization is leading to more insular families

Because parents are invested in instilling their values in their children, the increasingly polarized political climate is changing the structures of American family life. “As we see deepening polarization in the country, we see a rise in the way families are structured along partisan lines,” Lyons said. Over the last couple of decades, Democrats and Republicans have become less likely to be in relationships with one another, and parents feel more strongly about their children marrying people on the other side of the political aisle. And geographically, Lyons said, places are becoming either more solidly Democrat or more solidly Republican, which will eventually lead to less exposure to new and different ideas.

In a way, that’s more crucial in shaping people’s values than the parents themselves. “When children adopt their parents’ values, often times it has nothing to do with the parents,” Hatemi said. “It has to do with the environment created by the parents.” So as families become more consciously insular, it could mean that people will be even more likely to adopt their parents’ politics. But the harsher constraints on kids and the lack of exposure to different people may push them to seek out a different environment altogether. And it’s that new exposure that will help determine what political attitudes they will eventually have.


AMA with McKay Coppins

Today, staff writer McKay Coppins joined us in the forums to answer questions about his profile of President Trump’s “right-hand troll” Stephen Miller, as well as his other work. You can check out the discussion here, and an excerpt below, in which McKay responds to a question about whether reacting to trolls contributes, counterproductively, to their agendas:

McKay: I think that the question of how to respond trolls really depends on who the troll is. If it’s just some anonymous Twitter troll lobbing bombs at you, it’s probably best to ignore. Even if it’s someone like Ann Coulter, it might be worth thinking twice about whether you want to give her the outrage she’s fishing for (though I can see arguments for and against pushing back against prominent celebrity trolls like her). When the “troll” has a position of real influence, though, I don’t think it’s an option to not respond—even if it does “contribute to their narrative.” You could make the case, for example, that writing a long profile of someone like Miller is an example of “feeding the trolls,” but he’s going to have this power regardless of whether we write about him or not, so I think it’s best to explain what’s motivating him and what he’s doing. The best rule I can come up with—and I know this isn’t very satisfying—is to try to be as level-headed and non-hysterical as possible when you’re responding to them. What they want most is for their targets to overreact.


Today’s Wrap-Up

  • Today’s Question: Did you grow up with different political views than your parents? How did that come about? We’re discussing it in the forums.
  • What’s Coming: On Monday, we’ll offer up a guide to MS-13, one of the main drivers of the current immigration debate.
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