The Political Divide between Authoritarian and Permissive Pet Owners

March 19, 2012, 5:03 PM GMT+0

I’ve always thought that you can learn a lot about people by how they treat their pets. Well, it turns out that you can gain substantial insights into their political beliefs. I’m not talking about the infamous tale of Mitt Romney putting Seamus the Dog on the roof of his car during a family road trip, either, although Americans who would treat pets that way are more likely to hold conservative political beliefs. At least that’s what my analysis of a national survey conducted last year by CBS News/Vanity Fair suggests (n = 1021, with 615 pet owners; raw data here).

I found that authoritarian pet owners—meaning individuals who do not think of their dogs or cats as family members and never let them sleep on the bed—were significantly more likely to hold conservative political positions than their more permissive pet-owning counterparts. The figure below, for instance, shows that the most authoritarian pet owners were about 25 percentage points more likely to disapprove of Obama and identify as Republicans and Conservatives than respondents who both considered their pets to be family members and always let them sleep on the bed—a relationship that holds after controlling for pet type and several demographic variables.

(Note: Pet authoritarianism is a two item index that ranges from least (think of pet as family member who always sleeps on the bed) to most (pet not a family member and never sleeps onthe bed). Predicted probabilities calculated by setting age, education, race, gender, Latino, income, marital status, and dog ownership to their sample means. Source: CBS News Poll, April 2011. Data accessed from Roper Center Archives).

These results are consistent with the perspective put forth in Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler’s 2009 book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in America, which argues that American politics has become increasingly polarized by an “authoritarian worldview”. That is, citizens with more authoritarian child rearing preferences, such as thinking it is most important for children to be obedient and well-mannered are more Republican than individuals who would rather children be self-reliant and considerate.

Questions about pet rearing practices should tap into this clash between authoritarian and permissive worldviews too. The upshot is that Americans who take a restrictive approach to raising their animals (e.g. never letting them sleep in the bed) are considerably more likely to express conservative political beliefs than the country’s lenient pet owners.