You might have noticed an interesting trend in American voting habits. Not on ideological or partisan grounds but based on gender. This trend has been called the mommy/daddy divide. In essence women have been voting more Democratic in recent years (excluding 2010) and men have been voting more Republican (excluding 2006 and 2008). This phenomenon has gradually been increasing from 1984 when elections became more ideological and not just partisan. Landslide elections with 55% of the popular vote and 400 or more electoral votes have become a thing of the past. The mommy/daddy divide helps explain why.
But first some possible causes need to be explained. The first is psychological as well as social. The prevailing social model of the Western world up to the millenial generation was of the nuclear family. But that model has become increasing less prevalent in the latter parts of the 20th century and early 21st century. And as this model has become less prevalent societal norms values and values have changed. This in turn has affected women’s status in our society. There are now an unprecedented number of single women with children in our society. Democrats have increasingly courted this women who are struggling to get by. Programs like Medicare, Social Security and aspects of the new HC Reform law these women will rely even more in the coming years, especially due to the economic downturn.
These issues are not just important to single women though. A Pew Survey in January 2010 asked Americans to prioritize 21 partisan issues. For self-identified Democrats the five most important issues were Healthcare, the environment, helping the poor, education and securing Medicare. For Republicans it was strengthening the military, stopping illegal immigration. influence of lobbyists, terrorism and the moral breakdown of society. Notice a pattern here? Democratic’s most important issues have a distinct maternal aspect while Republicans have a paternal aspect.
The second factor, pyschological, which is devoid of social context can also be displayed by another study. Tufts University pyschologists showed people headshots of white Democrats and Republicans. People correctly guessed the partisan affiliation of each group 55%-60% of the time. Not bad. But when asked what each party projected a majority of participants said Democrats projected “warmth” and Republicans projected “power”. Guess this explains why Republicans chose an elephant as their party symbol and Democrats a donkey (just kidding).
Studies like this are insightful. They point to a psychological aspect of voting habits that rarely gets discussed. That is not to say that prevalant issues at the time are not important to women however. Indeed, the 2010 election results showcased this. For the first time in over a decade, the Republican party according to exit polls won a narrow plurality (49%-48%) of women voters. This contrasts with overwhelming numbers towards Democrats in 2006 and 2008 when voters saw the corruption of the GOP in 2006 and economic downturn in late 2008.
But in changing cycles of governance in DC government has alternated to reflect the interests of the genders. Women in general view government as a means to instill good. Men in general view government as a way to instill order. This brings us to the third aspect, the historical aspect, to the mommy/daddy divide.
The modern context to the mommy/daddy divide starts in the 20th century. Woodrow Wilson as a president was unique. Not only did he create the modern administrative state but he projected order and good at the same time. In WWI he went all out to win, but at home he also created dozens of new programs and bureaucracies designed to create safety and good in society. This carried on through Republican presidents and FDR. After WWII the US GDP grew by leaps and bounds. Programs established for years to promote societal good became more entrenched. Programs started by Democrats mainly. It would seem that Universal Healthcare would be a logical next step. Indeed, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote an insightful column on this very topic during the Healthcare debate in 2010. Said Brooks “This is what happens when a civilization becomes wealthier, they attempt to buy civilization.” For better or worse that is what the modern welfare state attempts to do.
But the patterns of governance as well as voting can change. By the 60’s Americans began to view this kind of society as to costly and wanted to see a shift in governmental policies. President Johnson (D) changed the welfare state from direct-relief programs to direct-benefit programs. This cemented the welfare state (public good programs) into US Society. The Great Society, President Johnson’s crowning achivement soon succeeded in driving Americans away from public good programs.
It is a truism in politics that active-state governance depends on self-interest. By the late 60’s and early 70’s Americans were far better off, for the most part ethnically and culturally homogenous and viewed the Civil Rights era as a success. Thus, views on what government should do shifted. But Nixon, Ford and Carter continued on with active-state governance. It was not until Reagan in the 80’s that paternal preferences returned to the WH. Reagan deregulated dozens of programs, implemented tax reform, stregthened the military and put the onus of wealth back on the individual. But even so, Reagan and politicans balked at cutting back on maternal preferences such as Social Security and Medicare. Even Reagan’s predecessor, H.W. Bush only projected power but did not pursue a cutback in government.
There were exceptions to this rule. President Bill Clinton (D) after a shellacking in the 94 elections worked with a Republican majority in Congress to reform welfare and cut back on government. In 2000, President George Bush took the reins of power and instead of reducing government expanded it. Like previous Republican presidents (minus Reagan) he expanded the government. He created a new Medicare Program (though modeled on the free-market) and the Department of Homeland Security. He responded forcefully to 9/11 and went to War in Iraq. In a way this appealed to maternal and paternal instincts. But by 2008, after a brutal 2006 elections self-interest fully returned to DC after a devasting market crash many blamed on lack of regulation in the market.
The social safety net society had built to help people in times like these failed. Free-markets were scary as home prices plummeted and jobs disappeared. But for all this the paternal aspect of governance remained alive with an active oppositional minority in Republicans in Congress. So eager was the left to engage in social and maternal policies that they quickly overreached, misinterpreting the fear of the public as a mandate for government-growth of the nanny-state. As a result, Democrats acted as if the public had shifted to an FDR-esque era. But voters had not. Voters accepted the modern welfare state but wanted their interests looked after through opportunity and job creation. Instead, Democrats went nuts and passed a massive Stimulus Package, Healthcare Reform and Financial Reform that did not answers voters needs. The result was the 2010 elections. Voters, men and women worried about the economy and actually government run-amok flocked to the opposition.
The 2010 elections showcase that preferences change, not instinct or views. The debate continues to remain the same. Democrats continue to fight for the mother of all maternal programs (no pun intended), Healthcare Reform, while Republicans oppose it. Democrats continue to want tax increases on the wealthy and cuts in military spending, Republicans continue to oppose both. Both parties represent different instincts and views. And as Democrats and Republicans spar over these views they reveal a deeper divide in American politics. The mommy/daddy divide.
Special thanks goes to David Kuhn (realclearpolitics) whose reseach I borrowed from.