J.J. Goldberg

Why Are Liberals in a Slump? For One Thing, They Have Fewer Kids

By J.J. Goldberg

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The past few months have not been easy ones for liberals and progressives. People have been walking around in a state of shock, as though the wind had just been knocked out of them. No one on the left expected the Obama high to be so short-lived. The progressive legislative agenda, on hold for so long, finally hit the road and promptly ran into a brick wall. The Republican right is way more energized than liberals could have imagined a year ago. All this comes at a time when the issues seem so fraught, the stakes so high — global climate change, jobs, health care and the rest.

Things in Israel feel just as bad or worse. The left is — well, it’s not even in free-fall anymore. That was yesterday’s news. Now it’s fallen and it can’t get up. The historic Zionist labor movement that built the Jewish state is fading into memory. The prospects of saving the peace process look dimmer by the day. On bad days, which come as frequently as alternate-side parking, democracy itself seems to be up for grabs.

And the question that comes up over and over in conversations — they’re almost daily now — is, What the heck happened?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about an article that I read a few years ago in Foreign Policy magazine. It’s a long piece by Phillip Longman, a scholar at the New America Foundation. The title is “The Return of Patriarchy,” but for my money a better title would have been “The Politics of the Birthrate,” because of its most stunning insight, which is at once its simplest and most obvious, and yet the hardest to grasp: One of the biggest factors in the left’s steady decline over the last three decades is the fact that liberals have fewer kids than conservatives.

Face it: For the last generation or so, childbearing has been transformed in progressive culture from life’s essential duty to a lifestyle choice. The culture of the conservative heartland between the coasts didn’t undergo that same transvaluation of values. It shouldn’t be surprising that the difference in birthrates has steadily widened. Now the effects of that differential are becoming clear, too clear to ignore, visible everywhere from electoral politics to religious trends and views on abortion.

We didn’t notice it for a long time — I suspect that many are rejecting it while they’re reading this, if they’re still reading — because the premise runs deeply counter to the assumptions of contemporary progressive thought. In this new age, personal autonomy and freedom of choice trump societal duty.

Also obscuring our vision: the assumption among baby boomers, the generation of the 1960s, that it was normal for children to rebel against their parents’ values. In fact, according to Longman, those generational rebellions only happened at relatively rare junctures in history — ruptures, really — of which the decade of the 1960s was the most recent. What’s normal in the long run of history is for children to grow up retaining the values in which their parents reared them.

There’s a lot more to Longman’s thesis than that. He projects some surprising developments over the coming generation or two. It’s not short a short essay, but it’s compelling reading and strongly recommended.

Longman’s work straddles the worlds of economics, demography, culture, science and progressive policy. He’s written important works on health-care economics, the future of pensions, interstate transportation and the environment in addition to his explorations of demography and the family. Here’s his bio and bibliography from the New America Foundation Web site, and here’s an op-ed he wrote last year in USA Today, expanding his arguments about population trends and their impact.

Lisa B Fri. Feb 12, 2010

I disagree.

In Israel the really high birthrate is among the ultra-orthodox and their priorities are religious - maintaining Shabbat, control of marriage and conversion etc. The Israeli right has grown from two areas - 1. The Russians. They grew up in a VERY different and much harsher culture. Take a look at Chechnya. 2. Immigration from National Zionists, primarily from the US and France. They already go there with very distinct and polarized politics. The ones who emigrate to the Settlements in particular obviously, and throw in the fact that living in insular, gated communities means that their politics will become increasingly polarized over time.

Other than that, the centrist Israelis just know that "the matzav" is pretty quiet if you don't live in Sderot and so are going with the status quo.

In the US, outside of the noisy poles most people are centrist. They lean towards whichever side takes the initiative and screams the loudest. Add in a massive recession where everyone is very unsure about their future and you'll find that no-one is feeling particularly generous these days.

allie Fri. Feb 12, 2010

Lisa B, you are so correct on all points, but one. The US centrists do not simply submit to those who take initiative. They comprise intelligent yet tacit population that has been totally shut by militant insults coming from either extremes, with the left - being consistently the loudest. Now, the center comes to realization that, when they take time weighing ups and downs, militants take over making it imperative to re-balance US to something in the middle, something that actually makes sense.

Czarkazem13 Fri. Feb 12, 2010

Why do people that are supposed to be journalists right obnoxious statments like “No one on the left expected the Obama high to be so short-lived.” It's like, because they are surprised, everyone else should be.

So everyone on the Left, even the ones that didn't vote for him because they saw this coming?!?

They put something like this in the article, it makes me question everything else.

I agree with much of what Lisa B stated. I would also add that the U.S. is a Center/Left nation despite what O'Reilly, Hannity, Limbaugh and others on the Right state. When asked if they are liberal or conservative, most Americans will lean towards conservative. This is do to the propaganda used against liberals. However, when asked about opinions on an issue by issue basis, most of the people that don't like liberals tend to be a lot more closer to liberal then conservative.

Moshe Pesach Geller Sat. Feb 13, 2010

1- There is no 'peace process' and never was. What there was/is a political power dance of competing interests. As there has never been any effort or attempt to first define 'peace' and therefore unanimity as to the goal, the dance remains the same.

2- As to the 'liberal/left' awakening to consequences of choices they have made, today's illusions will be tomorrow's awakenings. I used identify as liberal/left and never as 'center or conservative.' I came to realize that these positions are 'Avodat Zara' - 'strange worship/service.' If one wants to know the proper position or response for a Jew to take on issue or situation, they must turn to the essential and only Jewish source" Torah.

Just as an American turns to the Constitution for an 'American definition' of truth or right and wrong, a Jew must turn toward Torah for the same. The Jew can never think that he can bi-furcate his identity and keep them separate one not affecting the other. Anytime the Jew chooses a non-Jewish imperative to guide her/his actions, the consequeces will reveal themselves over time. Like Jerry Garcia sings: "It's the same story the crow told me, it's the only one you know."

Raymond in DC Sun. Feb 14, 2010

Goldberg writes, "One of the biggest factors in the left’s steady decline over the last three decades is the fact that liberals have fewer kids than conservatives." And why are they having fewer kids? That's a separate issue.

Yet another cause of that decline is that the liberals and the left, time after time, have been proven ... wrong. They were wrong about socialism, and painfully - even obtusely - wrong about the Soviet Union. They were wrong about urban renewal, wrong about school reform, wrong about welfare. They were wrong about military disarmament between the two great wars, they are wrong about nuclear disarmament today.

Since Goldberg brings Israel into this, I'll do likewise. Israel's left was wrong about Oslo, wrong about Arafat, wrong about the Gaza withdrawal. Israel's legacy of socialism kept the country economically shackled for decades. It is only the economic reforms, starting from the late 1980s, accelerating with a move to freer markets under Netanyahu both as PM and more recently as FM that have helped the country prosper.

As to the US, no it is not a center-left country; it is center-right. They believe the country should live within its means; they believe terrorists should be defeated, not provided lawyers; they believe more government is not the answer to every problem; and they believe the country should be militarily strong - notions I suspect quite foreign to most Forward readers.

Dave Mon. Feb 15, 2010

I love this. JJ and Longman can count.

If just 6 ultra-O couples have 10 children each, and each child has 10 children each then after 6 generations of this we will have 6 million Jews at the end (6 x 10^6).

Iari Wed. Feb 17, 2010

Fascinating article, and I've been saying for years that "demographics is destiny."

First, as a background, I'm a progressive.

When I lived in the American Mid-West, it was impossible to ignore all of the huge families of Christian Conservatives and Evangelicals with their kids in ideological lock-step... All of these kids are going to vote, one day, I would say to myself in dismay, and they're going to vote hard-right... My East Coast friends would say, "No, they're going to go to college, learn the ways of the world, and rebel..." Perhaps that might have happened in the 1930's, but not today, with the availability of right-cultured colleges, blogs, cable, books, etc that allow these teens to mature in an ideological bubble. Those kids are right-wing today, and they'll be right-wing tomorrow. I've seen it over and over. Meanwhile, most of my East Coast friends have one or, at most, two kids... They'll just eventually be out-voted... The coasts may be the cultural and economic engine of America, but the heartland is the voting engine of America...

Bringing Israel into the equation is similar, but different. Sure, demography is destiny there too... If an ultra-right family has 8 kids, but a "progressive" family in Tel-Aviv has 2, with one of the kids moving to France (one family we know), that's obviously going to have political repercussions. But as Raymond points out, the Left in Israel utterly failed and has been discredited in ways that haven't happened to the same degree in the US. It really is an empty ideology there, with no future, no practicality, and no hope.

In the US, both the right and left (and Obama is not really all that left) have become "faith based" parties. They are both so convinced of the correctness of their ideologies and orthodoxies that they don't let facts on the ground get in the way of their ideas, and thus they fail. Raymond points out many liberal failures, but the Bush years highlighted just as many Conservative flaws. Once upon a time there used to be pragmatists in both parties who used to as focused on problem solving as ideology, and all of those people are gone, replaced by ideological warriors whose only goal is to win, whether winning actually helps or not. That's actually why Obama is failing, because he's a problem solver who can't convince the ideologues on either side to go along and he's not as committed to winning as they are.

Thus, paralysis, and no demographic issues will change that...

David Thu. Feb 18, 2010

Why is Mr. Goldberg linking to an outdated article that came out in 2006? Immigrant familes, who usually vote Democratic and live in big cities, tend to have more kids than Americans in general. The U.S. is the only Western country that has a large enough birthrate to sustain social programs due to its liberal immigration policies.

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