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

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.

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