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Ross Douthat: Of daughters' futures and social conservatism

For our age of wonks and white papers and warring experts, there ought to be a word - something just short of, though not shorter than, schadenfreude - for the gentle thrill inspired by a social-science finding that mildly unsettles one's ideological opponents.

I'm thinking of the satisfied tingle a liberal might get from a study that suggests high taxes are good for economic growth. Or the spring added to a libertarian's step by a report that environmental regulations hurt the poor.

Or the pleasure that I took recently from the headline: "Study: Having daughters makes parents more likely to be Republican."

Why pleasure? Well, because previous research on this question had suggested the reverse, with parents of daughters leaning left and parents of sons rightward. And those earlier findings dovetailed neatly with liberal talking points about politics and gender: Republicans make war on women, Democrats protect them, so it's only natural that raising girls would make parents see the wisdom of liberalism ...

But the new study undercuts those talking points. Things are more complicated than you thought, liberals! You can love your daughters, want the best for them, and find yourself drawn to conservative ideas! Especially if you're highly educated, which is where the effect was strongest! Better dust off a different set of talking points -- maybe something about the family as the source of all oppression and how deeply internalized patriarchal norms make parents subconsciously inclined to tyrannize their female offspring and then we can argue about that!

Yes, I'm afraid this is actually the kind of internal monologue that comes with arguing about politics for a living.

But let me make a more limited, more personal argument on the subject. The next round of research may "prove" something completely different about daughters and voting behavior. But as a father of girls and a parent whose adult social set still overlaps with the unmarried, I do have a sense of where a daughter-inspired conservatism might come from, whatever political form it takes.

It comes from thinking about their future happiness, and about a young man named Nathaniel P.

This character, Nate to his friends, doesn't technically exist: He's the protagonist in Adelle Waldman's recent novel of young-Brooklynite manners, "The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P."

But his type does exist, in multitudinous forms, wherever successful young people congregate, socialize, pair off. He's not the worst sort of guy by any means -- not a toxic bachelor or an obnoxious pick-up artist. He's well intentioned, sensitive, mildly idealistic. Yet he's also a source of immense misery -- both short-term and potentially lifelong -- for the young women in his circle.

"Contrary to what these women seemed to think," Waldman writes of Nathaniel P.'s flings and semi-steady girlfriends, "he was not indifferent to their unhappiness. And yet he seemed, in spite of himself, to provoke it."

He provokes it by taking advantage of a social landscape in which sex has been decoupled from marriage but biology hasn't been abolished, which means women still operate on a shorter time horizon for crucial life choices -- marriage, kids -- than do men. In this landscape, what Nate wants -- sex, and the validation that comes with being wanted -- he reliably gets. But what his lovers want, increasingly, as their cohort grows older -- a more permanent commitment -- he can afford to persistently withhold, feeling guilty but not that guilty about doing so.

Waldman's portrait of Nate's romantic life is sympathetic enough to have earned her fan mail from young men. But it's precisely because Nate is sympathetic rather than toxic that the "Nathaniel P." phenomenon -- or what Rebecca Traister has dubbed "the scourge of indecisive men" -- is a hard problem to escape. Indeed, it seems like one of the hidden taproots of well-educated women's work-life-balance angst, and one of the plausible explanations for declining female happiness in a world of expanded female opportunity.

And lurking in Waldman's novel, as in many portraits of the dating scene (ahem, Lena Dunham, ahem), is a kind of moral traditionalism that dare not speak its name -- or that can be spoken of only in half-jest, as when the novelist Benjamin Kunkel told Traister that the solution was "some sort of a sexual strike against just such men."

Because Kunkel is right: One obvious solution to the Nathaniel P. problem is a romantic culture in which more is required of young men before the women in their lives will sleep with them.

To the extent that parents tend to see the next generation's world through their children's eyes, that's an insight that's more immediately available through daughters than through sons.

And no matter what the next study says about your likelihood of actually turning into a Republican, once you've flirted with that insight, you've tiptoed a little closer to something that might be described as social conservatism.

Even if you live in Brooklyn.

Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.



By ROSS DOUTHAT