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A Tale of Two Families: The Dynamics of Intergenerational Political Attitude Transmission in Modern Politics Open Access

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In recent decades, the American public and political elites have polarized ideologically and along partisan lines to extents inconceivable just 20 or 30 years ago. At the same time the media environment has fragmented, with consumers increasingly having access to greater media choice than ever before, including partisan news sources. Countless hours have been invested into understanding the implications of both the rise of polarization and changing media environment for politics. However, one foundational aspect of American politics has been overlooked by extant work – the process by which parents pass along their political attitudes to their children. In this dissertation, I remedy this deficit by studying how the rise of mass polarization and the changing media environment have affected the intergenerational transmission of political attitudes, as well as young people’s political development more broadly. This dissertation contributes to literatures on political socialization, political communication, polarization, and democratic competence.I argue, first, that the nature of politically polarized parents’ attitudes makes them more likely to be transmitted to, and subsequently adopted by, their children than parents without polarized attitudes. Further, I contend that this effect should be more prominent in politicized households, those households marked by parental engagement in politics and frequent political discussion, than in non-politicized households. Second, I argue that the manner in which parents have responded to the modern media environment, by either opting into news programming, or even partisan news, or choosing instead to consume entertainment and avoid the news altogether, affects the success with which they pass on their political attitudes and beliefs to their children. Third, I suggest that these changes may help account for the growth in what I term the “transmission gap” – a recent finding that over the past 30 years, politically engaged parents have become more successful at passing on their political attitudes and behaviors to their offspring, while the politically unengaged have become less successful.I test my theory using a combination of existing datasets on parent – child dyads and an original dataset based on a survey of parents and adolescents from Indianapolis, IN and Charleston, SC. I demonstrate that the more ideologically constrained a parent is, one conception of political polarization, the more likely they are to pass on their political attitudes to their children. Similarly, I find that parents who consume more news are more successful at passing along their attitudes about particular political and policy issues to their children than are parents who consume less news, even after accounting for a series of other explanations. These findings are robust across multiple data sets and time periods. They suggest that the rise of polarization among some segments of society and the new media environment have resulted in greater heterogeneity among the success parents experience at transmitting their political attitudes to their children.I conclude by moving away from a focus on attitude transmission and instead focus on how parents’ success at passing along their political attitudes, their level of polarization, and their news habits affect their children’s development of the tools – political attitudes, political sophistication, and political engagement – necessary to uphold their democratic responsibilities as they enter adulthood. I find that how successfully a parent passes along their attitudes to their child matters substantially for their child’s development of a sophisticated manner of thinking about politics, as well as the number of attitudes they hold. Similarly, I find that a parent’s degree of political polarization and news habits are strongly related to their child’s readiness to participate as competent citizens. These findings suggest a significant and growing gap in individuals’ levels of readiness to participate in politics based on characteristics of their parents and adolescent household.

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