Families and their political ‘oddballs’

On the most recent Super Tuesday, a snippet of a speech caught my attention. Ohio Gov. John Kasich was celebrating a win in his state’s GOP presidential primary. He mentioned that his parents had been lifelong Democrats.

He didn’t say why he hadn’t followed in their political footsteps.

Friday’s funeral for former first lady Nancy Reagan offered another glimpse of offspring who haven’t shared parents’ political views. During the service, Ron Reagan and Patti Davis spoke warmly of their mother. Yet politically, they didn’t see eye to eye with their dad, President Ronald Reagan.

“I never campaigned for my father,” Ron Reagan said in 2007 when I talked with him for a Presidents Day column.

If we don’t inherit political preferences from family, how do they develop? Experts say it’s not the norm to stray from one’s political upbringing.

“People fall in with family,” said Steven Horn, who heads political science studies at Everett Community College. “There are agents of political socialization. Most important are your family members.”

Horn said Wednesday that other influences are peers, school, work and the media. World events, too, can override the way someone votes.

“Depression or war can shake people’s allegiance to political parties,” Horn said. “We have realigning elections. There was the New Deal in 1932, and 1980 with Reagan.”

I am the daughter of staunch Republicans. While my siblings are, to varying degrees, aligned with my folks, I’m the family’s political outlier.

My dad, a World War II veteran, was in the Air National Guard during the Vietnam War. All through my high school years, we were at odds at the dinner table. While working a summer job in Spokane’s parks as a teenager, I met children and mothers far less fortunate than my family. Those were powerful experiences.

University of Washington Professor Mark A. Smith teaches a course titled “Free Will, Nature and Nurture in Politics and Society.” He also said parents are the major influence on political views.

“About 70 percent of adults share party affiliation and political beliefs with their parents — and 30 percent don’t,” Smith said. “We’re not oddballs in that.”

Party affiliation, like religion, is part of our identity. It may change in young adulthood, Smith said, “but by about 30, it tends to stay pretty constant.”

Keith Nitta, an associate professor teaching political science at UW Bothell, said parents don’t have to spell out their politics for kids to mirror them.

“Parents communicate in all kinds of way to teach kids what they should believe,” Nitta said. “It’s intentional and unintentional. Your kids are always watching you. They’re learning about politics through you. Most people end up pretty much like their parents.”

Other people and places matter, too. “You learn history in a particular way. If you grow up in Texas versus Washington, you learn different things in class,” Nitta said. Some students choose colleges to fit their political views, but in general people become more independent in college.

Whether it’s through college, travel or work, “knowing people will change your politics,” Nitta added.

Smith believes that more than any single event, “the tone of the times definitely matters.”

“People who grew up in the ’60s are probably going to be more liberal than people who grew up in the ’80s,” Smith said. “Millennials are the most liberal, and a fair number of them were from families that weren’t Democratic leaning. Social issues are a big part of it.”

They all noted their students’ support for Bernie Sanders, who serves in the U.S. Senate as an independent, is running in the Democratic race for president, but labels his beliefs as democratic socialist.

“When I grew up in the ’80s, socialism was halfway to communism. Socialism was a universal term of derision,” Smith said. “In the last 10 to 20 years, the term socialism is not so unpopular among young people. It’s more favorable than not.”

Did any of them foresee the rise of Donald Trump?

“Everybody has been surprised by this,” Horn said.

At UW Bothell, Nitta is stunned by Trump’s success in the GOP primaries. Nitta said he told people, “I don’t think he’s got any chance. And I was completely wrong.” He added, “I was in California when Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor. I just couldn’t get past that he was ‘The Terminator.’ ”

Smith, when asked about Trump, said “anybody who says they’re not surprised by that is lying.”

I have never voted like my dad. This year, even my father may not vote like my father.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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