Left or Right, It's All In the Family

Left or Right, It's All In the Family

Why you should care

Because we might not be as polarized as everyone thinks.

If the presidential election campaign is any indication, conservatives and liberals inhabit parallel universes, with incompatible views on everything from immigration to religion to family. A recent survey on the American family pretty much proved that to be true. But the survey also found something startling. If a liberal family and a conservative one lived side by side, and never talked about all those controversial issues, they might be hard to tell apart.

Liberal and conservative family life is pretty much the same, whatever people think or say.

“There aren’t red families and blue families,” says Jeremy Pope, a political science professor at Brigham Young University, and co-director of the center that conducted The American Family Survey.

That’s surprising, because the survey found sharply clashing opinions over family issues. For example, only 34 percent of the most liberal married respondents agreed that society is better off when more people are married, compared with 88 percent of very conservative married respondents. Do children need both a male and a female role model at home? Less than half of liberals agreed with that (27 percent of the most liberal), while roughly 90 percent of conservatives thought having a mom and a dad in the house was the best arrangement.

Yep, definitely different planets … until you look at how people actually conduct their lives in marriage. For the day-to-day stuff — helping each other out, going out together, discussing politics and finance, having sex, arguing … sleeping in separate bedrooms after a fight — it’s hard to spot the difference. “People tend to do the same sorts of things,” says Pope. “We really overplay polarization.”

There is one difference: Conservative families pray together more often. Aside from that, liberals tend to marry less often and to have slightly fewer children. Still, a healthy majority of everybody agreed that raising children is one of life’s great joys, even if conservatives felt that way more often than liberals. Perhaps the seeming inconsistency between opinion and behavior can be found in another part of the report. Most people said their own marriages were strong and getting stronger — only 6 percent said it had weakened in the past two years — and they believe themselves to be the exception. Forty-three percent said that other people’s marriages had weakened over that same period.

Maybe if all those conservative and liberals started talking to one another, they wouldn’t take such a dim view of the other. “One of the optimistic findings of the survey is that there’s room for discussion here,” says Christopher Karpowitz, a co-director who worked on the study.

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