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People Mostly Inherit What They Think Are Their Parents' Politics

The key word is "think"—people tend to identify with the same political parties they believe their parents do, even if that belief is wrong.
(Photo: Cyndy/Flickr)

(Photo: Cyndy/Flickr)

We get a lot from our parents—our eyes, our mannerisms, and, political scientists believe, our political identities. If mom or dad's a Democrat, that is, there's a good chance you will be too—or rather, if you think they're Democrats, there's a good chance you will be too. According to new research, more than one in five Americans somehow manage to inherit what they incorrectly believe are their parents' political leanings.

"The transmission of political party identification from parents to children remains one of the most studied concepts in political sociology," political scientists Christopher Ojeda and Peter Hatemi write today in American Sociological Review, yet theories of that transmission have largely stagnated. According to the prevailing view, which dates back to at least the 1950s, you passively adopt your parents' party affiliation.

More than one in five Americans somehow manage to inherit what they incorrectly believe are their parents' political leanings.

But that view has two significant problems, Ojeda and Hatemi argue. First, it ignores the possibility that kids are active participants in their political socialization, meaning they might choose to reject their parents' beliefs, instead consciously identifying with a different party than their elders. For example, a kid with left-leaning absentee parents might choose to vote for Republicans as a curious form of rebellion. Second, the prevailing view assumes that everyone can actually identify their parents' party affiliations. As it turns out, that's a pretty faulty assumption.

Ojeda and Hatemi investigated the matter using data from several surveys, including two waves of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, comprising a total of 11,992 parent-child pairs. In each survey, both children and their parents reported their own political affiliations, along with their beliefs about each others' affiliations.

Overall, just under half of the children surveyed knew their parents' true party identification and adopted it as their own, while 31 percent surveyed were wrong about their parents' political affiliations. Two-thirds of those people, or around 22 percent overall, were wrong about their parents' views, and adopted the affiliations they thought their parents had.

The reason, Ojeda and Hatemi found, lies in the communication and social support between parent and child. The more communication, the more accurate children's beliefs are, and the stronger the social support, the more likely kids are to adopt their parents' views—or at least what they think their parents' views are. But while parents are usually pretty supportive of their children, they don't tend to discuss politics with them. As a result, some kids persist in thinking their parents identify with one party and subsequently adopt that party as their own—even though it's not the party their parents actually chose.

"That's not to say that parents' actual partisan values do not play a critical role; they do," Ojeda and Hatemi write. But the "findings reveal that children's perception of parental values is a critically important determinant of political identification."


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