The Demographics of Liberalism

Are liberals in danger of becoming extinct? Demographer Phillip Longman says fertility trends are pointing us toward a more conservative future. He fills Linda Wertheimer in on his findings.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Could liberals be on the way to becoming an endangered species? Author Phillip Longman has been studying demographics. He says that people who consider themselves to be secular and socially and politically progressive around the world are having fewer and fewer children. Comparatively, religious or social conservatives are having more babies.

In the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine, Mr. Longman argues that this little notice demographic change will have a significant effect on the composition of future societies. Phillip Longman joins us in the studio. Mr. Longman, welcome.

Mr. PHILLIP LONGMAN (Demographer, Author): Good to be here Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Now, when you describe people as secular individualists, you do mean liberals, right?

Mr. LONGMAN: Yes, yes. It turns out that people who hold a broad range of social attitudes that most of us would recognize as liberal or progressive on average have dramatically fewer children than people who hold attitudes that most of us recognize as socially conservative.

WERTHEIMER: Well, then how significant is the difference in the rates between the secular individualists and the social conservatives?

Mr. LONGMAN: Well, in the United States, for example, the state that has the highest fertility rate is Utah. And the state that has the lowest fertility is Vermont. Utah, of course, is the epicenter of the Mormon Church and Vermont sends a Socialist to Congress, was the first to embrace gay unions. Very different places. And difference in their fertility is Utah is about 40 percent higher than Vermont.

WERTHEIMER: What do you think the reason is?

Mr. LONGMAN: Well, all around the world, fertility is falling, but it's falling least among Mormons, Islamic Fundamentalists, Christian Fundamentalists, people who adhere to a more traditional and socially conservative way of life. The big three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all relentlessly pro-natal. They counsel to go forth and multiply. So it's not entirely surprising that people who take their scripture literally act on it.

WERTHEIMER: Is this a bad thing that birth rates are falling?

Mr. LONGMAN: I think we should all be very grateful that we are no longer on the path we appeared to be in the 1970s when there was so much worry about the population bomb. What goes with that though is very rapid rates of population aging, so we have fewer workers to support retirees. And what also appears is a long term trend towards a more fundamentalist future, because what children are being born are being disproportionately born to people who are at odds with the secular world they find themselves in.

WERTHEIMER: In your article you suggest that when fertility rates begin to decline, human societies are at risk of extinction.

Mr. LONGMAN: Yeah, it appears that we've been here before, particularly in Ancient Greece and in Ancient Rome, it became a serious enough issue that Caesar Augustus, for example, slapped bachelor taxes on those who wouldn't marry.

WERTHEIMER: Now, you suggest in the future that the influence of progressive thought will wane.

Mr. LONGMAN: Well, we're in a situation where such a large share of the baby boom generation, for example, did not have children. And what children have been born are of comparatively narrow stock. So the big question is, does it follow that just because your parents are conservative, that you will be? Well, obviously not always.

WERTHEIMER: As a child of the Sixties, I would have to say often not.

Mr. LONGMAN: It's particularly hard for Baby Boomers to think about, but if there's anything approaching an iron law in the social sciences it is that people tend to over time adapt the values of their parents, particularly if they themselves have children. That doesn't mean, for example, that, you know, Republicans should be smug. Many of the social conservatives may well wind up being Democrats because the Democratic Party itself will change. And what's left of the Left will be people who are very much interested in family.

WERTHEIMER: Phillip Longman is the author of The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birth Rates Threaten World Prosperity and What to Do About it.

Thank you very much for coming in.

Mr. LONGMAN: Okay, well thank you.

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