photo by David Hepworth
While the particular phrasing is said to have originated with Truman-era bureaucrat Rufus Miles Jr., the concept that “Where you stand depends on where you sit” almost certainly goes back centuries.
From where I sit, the idea that being a Republican makes you more likely to marry or, conversely, that being a Democrat makes you less likely to get hitched, strikes me as probably backwards.
The conclusion that your political affiliation helps determine your marriage prospects is reached, somewhat circuitously, in an analytical article that recently appeared in The New York Times. The foundation of that article is that a person’s marriage prospects are tied to that person’s hometown, a correlation that emerged from data compiled by a team of Harvard economists who set out to study relationships between economic mobility, housing and tax policy.
Because we live in a country that we frequently and gleefully carve up into “red” and “blue” sections, the economists’ argument that there is a causal role between geography and behavior feeds directly into narratives about the geography of political belief. According to the article, “The more strongly a county voted Republican in the 2012 election, the more that growing up there generally encourages marriage.” While this was related to geography, the urban counties that voted Republican tended to be what the study called “marriage-encouraging” too, suggesting that politics can and sometimes does trump the divide between rural and urban when it comes marriage behavior.
The problem is that not only does correlation not inherently imply causation, but that even when causation is present, it isn’t obvious which direction those causes flow when both factors are matters of choice, such as marriage and political affiliation.
We can’t choose where we happen to be born, and generally we have no control over where we grow up. But does that mean geography is destiny? And if so, do political patterns cause the marriage trends economists saw, or is it the other way around?
Put another way: Are you born a Republican, and does this come packaged with predisposition to seek a mate recognized under religious or civil law? Or are your politics and policy preferences driven by your stage and position in life?
To the extent that Republicans are seen as encouraging couples to be married and espousing policies that support these relationships, married people will tend to vote Republican, all else being equal. Research from the Pew Center shows that the vast majority of respondents who identified as “steadfast conservatives” thought society was better off if people prioritized marriage and children. Of course, all else isn’t equal. If, for example, a married couple is African-American and see Republican policies as unsympathetic to African-American concerns, the relationship does not hold. Very few people choose their political affiliation based on one issue in complete isolation.
Broadly speaking, Republican principles emphasize reliance on self and family, while Democratic principles tend to favor collective responsibility and social safety nets. So the choice to marry or not to do so may push a voter toward one party or the other, even later in life.
Say you are a 60-something baby boomer contemplating your fast-approaching old age. If you have saved a nest egg and built a life together with a spouse who is prepared to stand by you as the years advance, you probably do not care to view your nest egg as part of a collective resource for your fellow boomers. But if, on the other hand, you find yourself alone with little savings and nobody in your household to take care of you when you can no longer take care of yourself, you are more apt to see a collective obligation for your care and support as a reasonable part of a just society.
There are other reasons geography, specifically, might affect whether people are likely to marry and when they do. In a small town, chances are the people who live there have jobs that do not demand they sacrifice family life or spend extensive time away from their families. High-pressure, family-hostile professions, on the other hand, tend to drive people, especially the highest achievers, to the country’s biggest cities, often those on the coasts. Even for support staff, such environments can be hard on family life. To the extent geographic movement seems to encourage or discourage marriage, it would seem likely to be because some economic environments are more conducive to settled life than others.
Our politics are not hard-wired into us at birth, despite our jokes that conservativism or socialism runs in our family. Our life choices and our situations inform our politics, which are more plastic over time than most people credit.