Every election cycle, political wonks and network news pundits fawn over swing voters and fresh demographic analyses. Elections are said to hinge on the Hispanic vote or the young vote or the Black vote or the suburban vote. And politicians scramble to cater to these blocks, treating them as single issue voters or attempting to mirror their aesthetics by donning Carharts or basebal hats. Here’s a vote you don’t hear about very much: The Parent Vote.
Sure, there have been some parent populations who’ve broken through to the national stage. During the 1996 general election, “Soccer Moms” became a sought-after demographic. Eight years later, “NASCAR Dads” had a brief moment in the sun. But the issues that supposedly defined these voters had little to do with the well-being of children. Soccer moms were affluent suburban white ladies. NASCAR dads were middle-aged, lower-middle-class, southern white men. The fact that these poorly sketched caricatures were parents was not ultimately relevant.
To appreciate how crazy that is, consider the numbers. As of 2016, there were 82 million families living in the United States. Some 70 percent of those families included two self-identified parents. In 2016, a record-setting year for voter turnout, only 136 Million people went to the polls.
When parents show up to elections they are capable of utterly dominating the polls without even leveraging their economic strength and communities ties. The fairly obvious reason that the Parent Vote is nonetheless ignored is that American parents have not historically shared a political ideology. Some vote as progressives. Others vote as conservatives. Trump and Clinton bumper stickers bleach on the back of mini-vans.
That parents don’t vote with one voice is not, in and of itself, a bad thing, but that lack of cohesion has led to a lack of family-friendly national policies despite general consensus on many parenting priorities. According to data from the Pew Research Center, 93 percent of parents from all political backgrounds believe it’s “very important” that children be taught responsibility. A full 90 percent believe children should be taught the importance of hard work and good manners. In order for kids to learn those things, they need access to decent schools, food, and healthcare. This is a claim backed by decades of research. So, if parents can agree on basic child-rearing principles, they should by able to coalesce around policies promoting education, health and childhood well-being.
Why do American parents keep getting played?
So why does the average school lunch cost $3 and why do kids in some places only have 15 minutes to eat? Why are American teachers paid 17 percent less than similarly educated workers in other fields? Why are kids offered barely a dollar worth of school lunch? Why do American parents pay obscene amounts for caregiving? Why do American parents underwrite the future of the economy without getting any of the perks common in Germany, Japan, England, and Sweden? Why do American parents keep getting played?
The answer is fairly simple: Partisanship is really distracting. And not only is partisanship distracting, it inevitably leads to relatively simple issues being recontextualized in terms of an ongoing fight, rather than in terms of return on investment.
And parents have the opportunity to invest in 2018. There are five states that have midterm ballot initiatives that will affect school funding and, by extension, teacher pay. Colorado’s Amendment 73 is one such ballot initiative. The measure would raise an additional $1.6 billion per year in taxes for the states public schools, leading to an increase in teacher salaries. This makes sense considering the fact that Colorado has traditionally spent several thousand dollars less per student than the national average. Is it a tax increase? Sure. But Colorado’s economy is booming and it is also a small price to pay for improved education. For parents, this is a no-brainer. Still, it has been portrayed as a partisan issue by firebrands, including Bernie Sanders, on both sides. It isn’t. Parents should vote for the measure because there’s reason to believe it will help.
In Utah, parents have a chance to send the legislature a message that education matters by voting on Nonbinding Opinion Question 1 which would put a 10 cent per gallon tax on gasoline in order to help fund education. The cost to the average Utah driver would be about $4 a month, but it would raise education spending $150 per child per year. That’s a good investment regardless of your political leanings. For pick-up owners without kids, the question might give some pause. For parents, the math is insanely simple ($150-12 x $4 = $102). The vote will, nonetheless, come down to the wire.
Controversies define elections, which is fine, but the uncontroversial policy initiatives that could help kids are now being entirely ignored and backburnered.
The distorted political thinking of parents is not new, but it seems to have gotten worse over the last few election cycles as partisanship clicked into overdrive.
Consider the 2010 passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The act reauthorized school nutrition assistance and worked to set healthier limits on foods offered in school. Some 153 members of Congress voted against the act. Hilariously named congressman Bob Goodlatte voted against it. Congressman Devin Nunes voted against it. California Representative Dana Rohrabacher voted against it. The bill required schools to increase nutrition and reduce sodium. It was not controversial for anyone outside of the school food industrial complex, which has historically offered material support to lawmakers willing to suggest pizza is a vegetable. How did these nay voters — who have since attempted to strip provisions and limit enforcement of the act — get re-elected by parents?
Again, there’s a fairly simple answer here. Parents misjudge the scale of political issues. Ensuring that kids have access to adequate nutrition is a massive issue. It doesn’t seem like a massive issue because it’s not ultimately controversial. Controversies define elections, which is fine, but the uncontroversial policy initiatives that could help kids are now being entirely ignored and backburnered. Nunes faces tough questions about the Trump investigation, but not about school lunch. This is bizarre.
This strangeness of the Parent Vote is most easily observed in the context of the ongoing debate over healthcare. Right now, in order for children to receive healthcare parents largely need to stay in their jobs. That puts significant pressure on parents to endure poor management and low pay. Medicare expansion would help by decreasing the leverage employers have on parents.
In 2018, many parents have the opportunity to vote on amendments that would increase access to health care for kids. In Idaho, for instance, voters will be considering Proposition 2, which would open Medicare up to people under the age of 65 who earn at or below 133 percent of the federal poverty level. It would help cover kids and be a boon for parents. The macroeconomic argument against this notwithstanding, parents who don’t serve as CEOs of major businesses should vote for it. Will they? Flip a coin.
Of course, there’s no real mechanism for parents to decide to vote on the issues as a block. There is, however, a mentality that all parents can share. Moms and dads who don’t try to separate politics from their personal life — or simply seek to secure a better return on the tax money they invest in the government — can approach the ballot with the well-being, education, and health of their child at the front of their mind (where it belongs). They apply a simple test to candidates and ballot measures: Will my vote help my kid? If the answer no, they should move on.
If the answer is yes, parents should have no problem casting a vote with a clear conscious regardless of party affiliation. And if every parent applied that test, there would be some 100 million votes cast in favor of children. That would be a tremendous wave. That would be a purple wave. But in order to get to that place, mothers and fathers need to refuse the incessant invitations to join the partisan bickering. They need to be calm amid chaos. They need, in short, to act like parents.