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Spare the Rod and Signal Your Politics

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Watch the next time you are in Target and a child throws a tantrum nearby. The way the parents respond could tell you if they are conservative or liberal. Research by Professor of Political Science Marc Hetherington indicates some people signal their political preferences through their actions, whether or not they mean to—from spanking a child to questioning authority and established ways of doing things.

In the book Authoritarianism & Polarization in American Politics, Marc Hetherington and co-author Jonathan Weiler explore the connection between voting patterns and attitudes toward authority. They discovered that those who possess higher levels of authoritarianism tend to vote conservatively.

“Authoritarians tend to see the world in concrete, black-and-white terms and have a stronger than average need for a sense of order,” Hetherington says. “Those who score lower regarding this cluster of attitudes are more comfortable with viewing the world in ambiguous shades of gray. They are often more tolerant of differing opinions.”

On the other end of the spectrum are liberals who have less regard for authority. In terms of child raising, they de-emphasize discipline and obedience and encourage creativity and questions.

“If partisans can’t even agree on a fundamental issue like the best way to raise kids, you can imagine how tough it might be to reach compromises on some of the most important political issues on the agenda,” he says.

Those divisive issues include gay rights, immigration and support for the war in Iraq.

While most people can be described as either basically liberal or basically conservative, few are wholly in one group or another. Even a staunch conservative like President George W. Bush showed his liberal leaning occasionally—his position on immigration reform reflected the views of someone with a lower amount of authoritarianism.

Polarization is at an all-time high in American politics—and with these fundamental differences between the two sides, coming together might be harder than ever.

photo credit: ©Uppercut Images Photography/Veer

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