I'm reading the latest study, hot off the press of the always fascinating National Bureau of Economic Research: "The Effect of Daughters on Partisanship," by New York University professors Dalton Conley and Emily Rauscher.
For Washington conservatives this is an old question with a clear answer: For years, daughters (and wives) of Republican senators tended to be more liberal on social issues. Meghan's recent very public embrace of gay marriage (which included posing for photos in a campaign implying her own dad is a hater for supporting a state marriage amendment) is an all too familiar public dance. Remember Patti Reagan?
A 2008 study actually confirmed that controlling for the total number of children, each additional daughter a congressperson has increases the likelihood that he or she will vote blue. The author attributed this to socialization: Empathy for daughters makes dad more likely to vote liberal.
This polite social fiction retains power even though serious research has shown that women are slightly more likely than men to oppose abortion.
Conley and Rauscher, to their credit, paused to consider an alternative hypothesis:
"Despite existing evidence (and relevant theory) suggesting that additional daughters should lead to more liberal attitudes, there is reason for pause. Conservative policies -- anti-abortion, pro-traditional family structure and so on -- seem to constrain the freedom of women. So why would parents of daughters want to hem in the life choices of their offspring? ... However, if one takes an evolutionary perspective on parental sexual conflict, the opposite predictions ensue. ... Daughters may elicit grandparental preferences for a world in which male sexuality is constrained and paternal investment in offspring is greater."
In other words, things may work differently outside of Washington. Maybe moms and dads of daughters worry more about the consequences of the sexual revolution. Conley and Rauscher decided to use general survey data to determine the effect that "female biological offspring" (aka "daughters") have on American parents' political identification.
Their new study suggests that Bristol Palin's mom may be more typical: The more daughters a person has, the more likely they are to identify as conservative.
Call this the Bristol Effect. I picked Bristol Palin for a reason. Bristol's life story -- so far -- is the most obvious reason that people who have daughters tend to be more socially conservative: For parents of teenage girls, the sexual revolution is just plain scarier.
I admire Bristol Palin's decision not to run away from her values, but to embrace them and to use her own story as a way to help prevent other girls from ending up young, unwed and pregnant. We live in a society that makes sexual abstinence improbable, and then laughs at those like Bristol who attempt it and fail. Abstaining from sex is not the only strategy a young adult can employ for connecting marriage, responsibility and childbearing. Bristol Palin's new public service ad for the Candie's Foundation, "Pause before you play," leaves the means to the viewer's imagination and emphasizes the most important reality: Teen sex has consequences. Not only for you but for the young life your bodies may create.
A conservative is a liberal who's been mugged by reality. Or a mother or father who launches a beloved daughter into the sexual minefield that adolescence today has become.
(Maggie Gallagher is president of the National Organization for Marriage and has been a syndicated columnist for 14 years.)