The Liberal Baby Bust

Phillip Longman sees dire consequences flowing from the fact that conservatives have more children than liberals.

It’s a pattern found throughout the world, and it augers a far more conservative future — one in which patriarchy and other traditional values make a comeback, if only by default. Childlessness and small families are increasingly the norm today among progressive secularists. As a consequence, an increasing share of all children born into the world are descended from a share of the population whose conservative values have led them to raise large families.

Today, fertility correlates strongly with a wide range of political, cultural and religious attitudes. In the USA, for example, 47% of people who attend church weekly say their ideal family size is three or more children. By contrast, 27% of those who seldom attend church want that many kids.


This correlation between secularism, individualism and low fertility portends a vast change in modern societies. In the USA, for example, nearly 20% of women born in the late 1950s are reaching the end of their reproductive lives without having children. The greatly expanded childless segment of contemporary society, whose members are drawn disproportionately from the feminist and countercultural movements of the 1960s and ’70s, will leave no genetic legacy. Nor will their emotional or psychological influence on the next generation compare with that of people who did raise children.


Tomorrow’s children, therefore, unlike members of the postwar baby boom generation, will be for the most part descendants of a comparatively narrow and culturally conservative segment of society. To be sure, some members of the rising generation may reject their parents’ values, as often happens. But when they look for fellow secularists with whom to make common cause, they will find that most of their would-be fellow travelers were quite literally never born.

Many will celebrate these developments. Others will view them as the death of the Enlightenment. Either way, they will find themselves living through another great cycle of history.

Leaving aside whether these results are desirable, the logic here is quite strained. Most notably, while it’s true that the fastest growing churches are the most conservative ones, the overall trend in society is toward much more secularity and breaking down of traditional norms.

Take the language. Profanity that would have earned a film an “R” rating in the mid 1970s is now routinely heard on broadcast television during prime time. Words that got guffaws when Richard Prior or Eddie Murphy said them, simply because of their shock value, have become punctuation. Comedy Central’s “South Park,” which would probably have been given an NC-17 rating if released in the theaters in 1975, is now acceptable fare for teenagers. Indeed, there is such a thing as “South Park Republicans.”

The views on homosexuality have rapidly changed over the last thirty years; indeed, the last ten. To take one example that I cite with some frequency, Arlo Guthrie’s 1966 counterculture anthem “Alice’s Restaurant” contains the line, “And if two people, two people do it, in harmony, they may think they’re both faggots and they won’t take either of them.” One can’t imagine Pat Robertson using the term “faggot” today.

Even conservative, churchgoing women who are married have careers. It’s probably true that somewhat more of them who can afford to do so make the sacrifice of staying home and raising–or even home schooling–their children than their progressive peers. But the overall trendline is unmistakeable and quite unlikely to reverse.

Indeed, society’s answers to the test question that Longman suggests, “Do you find soft drugs, homosexuality and euthanasia acceptable?” is moving in a progressive direction. It’s true that there is a reactionary wave against gay marriage at the moment. But, then, the very idea of gay marriage would have been considered ridiculously radical twenty years ago. Indeed, one can scarcely imagine George McGovern–considered a radical left winger when he was the Democratic nominee in 1972–even conjuring the notion, let alone embracing it.

Longman can relax, methinks. It’s the conservatives, not the liberals, who are losing on cultural issues.



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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Patrick McGuire says:

    I am surprised that the main reason of liberals losing out on the population race has been totally missed. It comes down to abortion. Liberals embrace the “right” of abortion on demand and are therefore much more likely to use it while conservatives are just the opposite. So while conservatives promote their values to their progeny, liberals abort their fetuses and thus have nobody to pass on their values.

  2. ICallMasICM says:

    I agree and disagree with you and think you’re looking at some cultural trends and ignoring some others. No doubt there is a greater acceptance of homosexuality across all segments of society and no doubt there is a coarsening of language across all segments of society. To me these are fairly minor trappings than more overall cultural tendencies. You ask about a 70’s era candidate advocating for gay marriage but what about a Y2K+ candidate advocating for expanded welfare programs or a mandatory minimum federal income or massive urban renewal projects. Granted there is plenty of insidious nibbling the expands gov’t but look at the lessening power of liberal groups like organized labor. Look at the rate of home ownership and the lowering age of first time purchasers. Look at the demographics of census shifts out of the northeast and Rust Belt. I live in the bluest of blue cities and one thing you would notice is the number of vacant school buildings and the number of both public and parochial schools that have closed. Some of the reasons are cultural but one thing this guy doesn’t seem to focus on is the economic aspects.

    One other comment ‘Itâ??s probably true that somewhat more of them who can afford to do so make the sacrifice of staying home and raisingâ??or even home schoolingâ??their children than their progressive peers.’ – It’s a choice not a sacrifice. This may be the one distinction that is more responsible for the differences in birth rates than any other. If one group thinks that children are a burden then they’re probably not going to have so many. If another group thinks of children as the basis of a family and that’s their focus then that’s probably going to lead to a lot more little kiddies for that group. If that’s the conservative/secularist divide then I’m pretty sure I know who’s going to procreate.

  3. James Joyner says:

    ICallMasICM: We mostly agree. See the two “Related” posts.

    There’s no doubt there are political trends in the country shifting right. But few of those are on the “values” front that Longman’s piece addresses.

    Something can be both a choice and a sacrifice. Raising children is one example. Sure, people can view their duty to their children as the most important thing in their life and very much worth it. There’s little doubt, though, that doing so sacrifices a lot of personal freedom and, in the case of the educated woman who stays home with the kids, some degree of professional fulfillment as well.

  4. I think you are looking at a particular watermark on a wall and assuming the water will always be that high. Take a look through history and you find that what is considered socially acceptable wanes and waxes with regularity.

    What is new now is that where before “liberals” and “conservatives” (which in ways have exchanged each others positions in the political dance) would likely have the same number of children. They would each recruit from the others rebellious children and nurture their own conforming children. Since the technology of controlling the number of children born was limited, the birth rates remained relatively he same. But now the technological advances in birth control and the legality of abortion allows a great deal of autonomy on selecting the size of the family. Check out the CDC rates on births and abortions. You can almost pick out red and blue states from that alone.

    Since roughly 1/3 of the children rebel against how they were raised, the “conservatives” will be recruiting from a smaller pool of “liberal” off spring, but that will be more than made up for by their larger pool of conforming children.

    This is likely to play out over several generations (with the first generation showing the least effects being those born in ~1950). But the evolutionary numbers are inevitable. Look at it in terms of evolution, take any trait and reduce those who carry that trait’s birth rate. See how long it takes for that trait to disappear.

  5. Bithead says:

    What we are seeing, here, is a culture repulsed by the extreme left of it’s social spectrum, and returning to it’s roots in reaction to it. And the population numbers reported tell the remainder of the story.. each end of the spectrum getting increasingly radical, but the conservatives winning out on sheer numbers.

    So, (apologies to Mr. Smith) the invisible hand works in things cultural, too, and the culture moves to protect itself. All without governmental intervention. Indeed, in SPITE of it.

  6. Tano says:

    The rebellion factor is being overlooked here. Remember that it was the “greatest generation” that spawned the 60’s hippies. And the children of the hippies are todays somewhat more conservative generation. A generation of conservative parents will inevitably spawn a generation of frustrated rebellious children who define themselves in opposition to thier parents, once again. This is especially true given the incessant dynamic of globalization and inter-connectedness playing off against the deeply reactionary instincts of today’s conservatives.

  7. Bithead says:


    Are you suggesting it’s pure reactionary, with no real logic to it at all?

    I submit that one reason boomer +1 generation swing so far right was they were first-hand witnesses to the damage the liberalism held, caused.

  8. Dave says:

    In 1975, the movie would have been a saucy “X”!

    NC-17 was introduced in 1990.

  9. ICallMasICM says:

    JJ – I think you’re betraying a little bit of your personal preference in your characterization of us MWK’s. I think there’s a common misconception from people who don’t have children that people who are raising families are making huge sacrifices and why they are doing what they do. I think it’s pretty common knowledge that people who are maried and stay married live longer, are healthier and so on. But more to the point I think that it’s more people’s views on family that are going to tend to drive their social views than peoples social views determining whether they’re going to have kids or not. Look at the marriage gap in voting. Maybe I’m wrong but I don’t think a whole lot of people say if they’re going to drill in ANWR I don’t want to raise kids. And if they do I think they’re lying. I do think a lot of people think I’ve got a family that I want to be safe and secure and I don’t want to pay $3 for a gallon of gas so I guess we should get more oil from someplace.

    The same thing about personal fulfillment through work. I think if that’s your focus then you may choose to not have children but if you choose to have a family you’re going to work to provide for them. My wife graduated from Smith with a double major but we’re both from families with a lot of kids and there was never any question about what our priorities were. I know there’s some lack of personal fulfillment, or least going out to lunch and shopping in town, from not working but I’d say that hardly compares to the lack of personal fulfillment people who have no families experience. But that’s just IMHO.

  10. floyd says:

    the main reasons liberals are lagging behind on procreation are 1] they can’t figure this whole “male- female” thing out,or how it works, and 2] they can’t figure out how to get the government to do “it” for them. they have, however, figured out how to get the government to do “it” to their fellow citizens.[lol]