Let’s face it: We’re living through a polarizing political moment. Picture the person furthest from you in politics, the most ideologically opposed human being you can imagine. Now, what’s his or her name? Whether you’re picturing a lacrosse-loving petroleum geologist or the free-spirited daughter of sociology professors, data might make guessing feasible. Because baby names are political — perhaps not intentionally, but definitively.
For some more insight into the complicated politics of naming your baby, Fatherly reached out to Dr. Stefano Ghirlanda, an evolutionary biologist who created the baby-naming database Nameclouds after struggling in the lead-up to his first child’s birth. Ghirlanda created an algorithm that tracks the correlation between names and voting behavior. Using publicly available voter rolls and Social Security Administration data, the algorithm sorts progressive names like Kyle from conservative names like Roman from essentially neutral names like Malcolm, providing parents with the chance to decide whether or not to conform to what might be described as tribal norm.
Ghirlanda explains that this is possible because names trend among largely homogenous groups.
“Everyone thinks that you’re giving original names, but we’re all part of this shared cultural community,” Ghirlanda said. “And so everyone comes up with more or less the same names, even though you [different] have justifications.”
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While names themselves rarely have political significance (here’s looking at you Reagan), they say a lot about parents — and parents’ politics tend to inform the politics of their children. Some of this is racialized. Baby names that are popular with black Americans, including Aliyaah and Julius can be described as liberal because black Americans are more likely to vote Democratic. The politics of Spanish names are similar if a bit more complex.
Geography plays a part too: If a name is popular in a red state, it’s obviously more likely to be conservative. Vice versa for the blues. Take Quinn, one of the most purely liberal common boys’ names. It’s most popular in Vermont and New Hampshire but not uncommon through Maine and Rhode Island. It’s a New England name so it is, because of the politics of that region, fated to skew liberal. On the other hand, Gunnar, which is most popular in Alaska, skews Conservative.
But many politically correlated names become common for less obvious demographic reasons. If you live in a liberal enclave where everyone you know reads similar books, watches similar shows, and holds the same values, it should come as no surprise when your kid isn’t the only Benjamin (never Ben) in their kindergarten class. Tribes behave in specific ways and American politics are — as many a pundit has bemoaned — increasingly tribal. Here’s what Nameclouds data shows are the most popular names for each end of the liberal and conservative axis.
The only way to isolate a name, generally, from political connotations is to use ones that have been broadly popular for years. Scott, for instance, is right in the middle. But there are also outliers — Benjamin, for instance, is extremely popular among high-income liberals. Though it’s trending down at the moment, the name has been consistently popular since the mid-70s, despite a lack of clear inspiration from a particular movement or politician. Tommy represents a similar if opposite case. The name tends to be conservative, although there’s no clear historical or cultural reason why that would be the case. Ghirlanda’s thesis that names become in-group behaviors regardless of their sources proves out.
That said, some names are inspired by political moments. Ghirlanda points to the name Hillary, which saw a steady rise and an enormous spike in 1992, when Bill Clinton was elected president. Subsequently, there has been an extreme drop in popularity.
“Presidents and First Ladies are often in their 50s or older, so by definition, they have names that are not trendy,” Ghirlanda says. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t trend. Hillary had a moment, but that moment passed for a wide variety of reasons (not campaigning in Wisconsin comes to mind). At the same time, Reagan has retained its popularity since the 1980s, which seems to reflect Republicans’ continued admiration of the 40th president, who is reviled by many on the left.
This is all to say that parents often unintentionally give children politicized names and take a risk when they do so on purpose. Politicians, after all, can add real baggage to a name. Not a lot of Adolfs wandering around.
But time messes with preconceptions about names as well. Bernies, as it turns out, tend to be conservative — likely because they also tend to be old. A few decades from now that may be different. The name is becoming popular again — and not among conservatives. But hey, they’ll always have Ronald and Reagan.