Why Conservatives Beat Their Children and What it Means for the Rest of Us

That conservatives are far more likely to support corporal punishment and other forms of violent and coercive control is a fact borne out in the scholarly literature (See Ellison, Hoffman et al., Conservative Protestantism and attitudes toward corporal punishment, 1986-2014, Social Science Research, March 2017). The University of Chicago’s General Social Survey find that 80% of evangelical Christians support physical punishment. We know this to be true from experience. How many memes do we have to see from that conservative friend extolling the values of his violent upbringing? It did him good, he insists. Well, obviously it did something…

Why conservatives are more likely to beat their children is also well understood: coercive control and interpersonal violence issues from the hierarchical and authoritarian worldview that underpins conservative thought and practice. Erich Fromm, in his landmark 1941 work Escape from Freedom, identifies authoritarianism, conformity, and destructiveness as traits emerging from Protestantism, an ideology that calls on people to constantly prove their value and worth to God through disciplined labor. Fromm’s essay “The Authoritarian Personality,” published in Deutsche Universitätszeitung, Band 12 (Nr. 9, 1957), identifies a type of person who is unable to endure freedom and thus seeks control over others. Because of this person’s belief in submission to authority, he himself submits to authority. In 1950, Theodor Adorno and associates operationalized the authoritarian personality in The Authoritarian Personality. The authoritarian loathes intellectual and artistic pursuits, instead focusing on domestic virtue and practical matters; homosexuality is seen as deviant and worthy of suppression; human nature is violence-prone and thus necessarily coercively controlled; masculinity is properly expressed without showing any signs of weakness, which means women are weak and emotional; insults to honor should never go unpunished. These are also traits of conservatism. 

Since ideology motivates and shapes action, attitude and belief have consequences; they explain behavior. The research is unambiguous on this point: routine physical punishment damages children. After reviewing decades of research, Gershoff published the Report on Physical Punishment in the United States: What Research Tells Us About Its Effects on Children, published in 2008, calling on parents and caregivers to avoid physical punishment and calls for the banning of physical discipline in all US schools (something European countries have done). The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, and numerous other professional associations have endorsed the report.

In family relations, conservatism instinctively appeals to the principle of pater familias, or “father of the family,” which rests on patria postestas, or intrinsic “father power,” a system of beliefs that (to their mind) legitimates physical control over those believed to be under the command of the dominus (or master). Conservatives seek obedience and see others as objects on which to manifest their control fantasies and take out their frustrations. This principle extends not only to animals under their control, but to workers; before workplace rules forbade the beating of workers, businessmen used physical violence to extract from workers submission and surplus value. 

This same attitude makes conservatives more likely to despise and discriminate those they perceive as different from themselves. Conservatives have little tolerance for beliefs and practices they do not understand or share, and they are unwilling to tolerate deviation—what they define as disobedience—from what they assert is correct behavior. Deep down, many conservatives they could beat every “deviant” in the same way they beats their own children. When they demand respect, they do so not as a human being, but as an authority figure.

This set of attitudes and beliefs is the source of the contradiction apparent in the rhetoric opposing big government yet obsessed with police and prisons and the military state apparatus. The conservative woman crosses the airport concourse to thank a uniformed solider for his sacrifice because his image arouses in her the authoritarian desire. She also apologizes for the misogynistic locker room talk of the men in her life. Conservatives hate government programs that assist and nurture those in need, those whom they view as inferior and immoral. They love government action that excludes, controls, and punishes. They excuse bullying, police brutality, and war crimes. They seek to control the womb.

The obsession with authority and conformity is what lies at the core of conservative family values. It legitimates physical violence in the family, coded as discipline. But it legitimizes much more than that. The authoritarian impulse sets up conservatives to be fellow travelers to fascistic movements. We all know this to be true, as well.

Note: Support for physical punishment is also very high among African Americans—higher even than among evangelical Christians. Studies show that that African American child rearing practices tend to favor authoritarian and disciplinarian approaches. Moreover, the prevalence of child abuse and maltreatment are higher in this demographic. The African American demographic is disproportionately associated with violence crime—aggravated assault, robbery, and homicide, particularly among young male. Domestic violence is also greater among blacks, with violence resulting from death a particular problem. Poverty associated with inequality is a strong predictor of physical coercion and violence. Given the overrepresentation of blacks among the poor, it is likely that inequality is one of the more powerful predictors of these phenomena. However, it is also true that African Americans are strongly Protestant. I will revisit this issue in a later essay, but it will suffice to say that the link between violence against children is likely one of the main reason for much higher rates of violence among black Americans. Why blacks do not lean politically authoritarian is because of the disadvantaged social location they find themselves in and the need of a strong social welfare system, which is supported by liberal Democrats.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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