Navel-Gazing And the Values Debate
You might not expect to find strategy-relevant information in a paper by a Dutch sociologist that has the title, “The ‘Second Demographic Transition’ in the U.S.: Spatial Patterns and Correlates" (pdf). But as it turns out, Ron Lesthaeghe and his co-author Lisa Neidert have uncovered some fascinating evidence that clarifies what the “culture wars” in national politics are all about.
L&N start with 19 demographic indicators. They then examine the correlations across U.S. states between these indicators and identify two underlying dimensions that the indicators tap into. The first of these – call it lifestyle modernism – has to do with delay in marriage and childbearing, cohabitation (opposite- or same-sex), fertility, and abortion rates. The second is related to teen and nonmarital fertility and might be thought of as childbearing conventionality. Divorce rates play into both dimensions.
Still with me? If you thought that was the interesting part, just wait…
What emerges starkly from their results is that blue states tend to have modern lifestyles (delayed marriage and childbearing, relatively high abortion and low fertility, high levels of cohabitation) while red states tend to have traditional ones. How strong is this relationship? Social scientists use a measure of association called the correlation coefficient, which can range from -1 (perfect negative association) to 1 (perfect positive association), with 0 indicating no linear relationship. This economist found that the correlation between the share of a state’s vote that went to Bush in 2004 and the share of the state’s voters “regularly” attending church was 0.20 – quite low. Compare this to the correlation between modernist lifestyle (a combination of the above demographic indicators) and the 2004 vote for Bush: -0.87.
In English, this means that differences in lifestyles – in terms of when people get married and have children, how many children they have, how common cohabitation and same-sex households are, and how high abortion rates are – are far more strongly related to presidential voting patterns than church attendance is. Indeed, when L&N controlled for the share of a state’s population that was Evangelical and the share that was Catholic, the correlation between lifestyle and the vote only declined to -0.76.
Ready to be even more impressed? The association is strong even at the county level. Take a look at these maps showing the Bush vote by county and cohabitation (same- or opposite-sex) by county (from page 25 of L&N’s paper).
What to make of these results? One conclusion might be that the cultural/values divide between blue and red states is bigger than religion. It is fundamentally about modernism versus traditionalism, about deference to authority. L&N write that lifestyle modernism is associated with secularism, anti-authoritarianism, egalitarianism, moral libertarianism, high valuation of self-actualization, tolerance for moral ambiguity and unconventionality, and a preference for friendships over civic involvement. The quest for fulfillment has led modernists to be more picky about taking a spouse and to think twice before commiting to children in young adulthood. Does this sound like anyone you know?
Ron Inglehart has noted that as more and more Americans became economically secure in the post-WWII years, the growing middle class could worry less about the materialist concerns of the New Deal era (how can I afford to feed my family?) and could focus more on “post-materialist” issues (how can I feel fulfilled in my job?). This argument implies that with opportunity and economic security come blue-state values. Absent that, many red state voters will not have the luxury of such navel-gazing, and they will seek meaning and refuge in traditional institutions, ways of life, and attitudes toward authority. And they will vote Republican.
If Democrats can successfully implement a progressive economic agenda, we may see the values debate become marginalized. But in the meantime, modernists need to respect – or at least address – the traditionalists and their deference to family, religious, and state authority. There are undoubtedly things we can do in this regard that do not require us to abandon core Democratic values. But that's a post for another day.