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The political science behind the Bidens’ biting dogs

Democrats are more permissive (pet) parents.

- October 11, 2023

The Bidens’ two-year-old German Shepherd, Commander, left the White House last week. CNN reports that the dog has bitten even more individuals than the 11 instances previously confirmed by the U.S. Secret Service. Commander is now the Bidens’ second dog to leave the president’s residence, and for the same reason. Their other German Shepherd, Major, was similarly sent away after numerous biting incidents.        

“For Secret Service agents and officers as well as residential staff,” Peter Baker reported in the New York Times, “the president’s failure to take decisive action sooner has been baffling and frustrating.” But the Bidens’ toleration of such repeated bad behavior for as long as they did might make a tad bit more sense in light of the data and political science research below.   

Democrats have deemphasized obedience and discipline in parenting

I once saw Marc Hetherington begin a presentation of his book, Prius or Pickup? How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide, with this picture of his mischievous dog owning the bed.  

Image: Marc Hetherington, used with permission

Hetherington was comically connecting his own permissiveness as a pet parent to the growing political divide between Americans with “fixed worldviews” (e.g., those wary of social and cultural changes) vs. “fluid worldviews” (e.g., people who support changing social and cultural norms). Kidding aside, though, there are good reasons why his disobedient dog example resonates.  

After all, one of the “four simple questions” that Prius or Pickup? used to measure fixed vs. fluid beliefs is whether it’s more important for children to be obedient or self-reliant. And you can see below that the share of white Democrats choosing obedience over self-reliance has sharply declined over the past two decades.  

Drawing on data from the American National Election Study’s (ANES) cumulative file, the display shows that the share of white Democrats who prioritize obedience has fallen from 55% in 2000 down to 22% in 2020. (Note: The analysis here is limited to whites because Efren Perez’s research shows preferring certain traits in children validly captures fixed worldviews for whites but not African Americans). Similarly, the share of white Democrats in the ANES who said it’s more important for children to be well-behaved than considerate fell from 31% in 2000 to 14% in 2020. 

Meanwhile, the percentage of white Democrats who favor spanking as a form of discipline has declined even more dramatically in the General Social Survey. While over 70% of Republicans have consistently supported corporal punishment over the past two decades, the next graph below shows that the share of white Democrats who agree “that it is sometimes necessary to discipline a child  with a good, hard, spanking” plummeted from 70% in 2000 down to 33% in 2022.   

Democrats are also more permissive pet parents

There’s even some evidence that Democrats’ more permissive child-rearing tendencies extend to their attitudes toward their pets. I presented data back in 2012, for example, showing that permissive pet parents were significantly less conservative than their more restrictive pet-owning counterparts. 

Those analyses showed that Americans who never let their pets sleep on the bed and didn’t view them as family members were about 25 percentage points more likely to disapprove of Obama and identify as Republicans/conservatives than respondents who both considered their pets to be family members and always let them sleep on the bed. The results held after controlling for pet type and several demographic variables, too.       

It may not be all that surprising given these data, then, that two of the worst behaved pets in presidential history belong to a white Democrat. Indeed, the Bidens’ toleration of such repeated bad behavior is certainly in keeping with a political party who has turned sharply away from obedience and discipline over the past two decades.      

To be sure, this doesn’t mean that all badly behaved dogs belong to Democrats. There are, of course, also lots of Republicans out there who pamper their pets. But on average, Democrats tend to be more permissive parents than Republicans of both children and pets. Biden’s biting dogs may well reflect that general tendency.

That trend, it turns out, clearly captures the dynamics in my household. In fact, my political beliefs fall perfectly in line with what it would predict from the photo below of me buried somewhere beneath a couch full of disobedient dogs.  

Dogs on couch
Photo by the author.