Political scientist Brian Duff's new book explores the dilemma of parenthood in politics and theory

February 11, 2011

Parenthood plays a central role in the way citizens and politicians think about politics.

In the opening days of his administration, President Barak Obama published an open letter to his daughters in which he promised to make their future, and the future of all American children, the focus of his work in office.

In the meantime his opponents have sought to use the same perspective against him. Republicans have suggested that stimulus spending and other new government programs will burden future generations with crippling debt. "Grizzly moms," Sarah Palin maintained, would go to the polls to say "No - this isn't right for our kids and for our grand-kids."

In his new book, The Parent as Citizen: A Democratic Dilemma, Brian Duff, Ph.D., University of New England associate professor of political science, explains that we have become so used to this way of talking about politics that we rarely consider the larger significance of thinking about citizenship through the perspective of parenthood.

In his book, Duff explores how influential theories of democratic citizenship rely on the experience of parenthood to help individuals rise to the challenges of politics, and demonstrates that this reliance has unintended consequences.

Duff develops this argument through original readings of four theorists of citizenship: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Nietzsche, Richard Rorty, and Cornel West - readings that engage the ways in which these theorists incorporated their personal history into their political thought.

Ever since modern political thinkers began worrying about how ordinary people can take on the responsibilities of democratic citizenship, Duff explains, they have looked to parenthood as an experience that can instill the qualities most useful for politics: Parenting can summon our sense of responsibility and authority amid the confusion of modern social forces. It can offer an impetus to pause and reorganize our lives around what is most important to us. It can deepen our sense of connection to both past and future as we reconsider our cultural inheritance in thinking about what we would like to pass on to the next generation.

In all these ways parenthood has come to be imagined as an experience that generates many of the capacities and responsibilities we hope citizens will bring to politics.

However, Duff says, "my book offers explorations of modern politics and political theory that suggest it is counterproductive to stake so much of our capacity for democratic citizenship on the sentiments and capacities that result from a parent's relationship with a child - a relationship in which power is distributed unequally, clearly, but also one in which responsibility is felt so intimately and profoundly that conflict and failure can be devastating."

Parenthood, he notes, often means we must impose upon our children "rules of behavior and conceptions of right and wrong that we know in our bones to be dubious.  Parenthood is often the source of our deepest insecurities and uncovers or creates some of our most surprising fundamentalisms."

"When parenthood becomes central to our conceptions of citizenship, our notions of political virtue struggle to live up to these standards," he says. "Political contest can become unbearable under such conditions."

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In a pre-publication review, James Martel of San Francisco State University, writes: "The Parent as Citizen is superb. Brian Duff has pulled off quite an accomplishment: he takes what seems like a peripheral issue to political theory - the question of parenting - and shows how it infiltrates into the heart of political issues, with corrupting and troublesome effects. Duff shows that parenthood is as much a symptom of as it is the solution to the ills of society. To pose it as some kind of perfect remedy is in fact to preserve the problems of society in the guise of curing them."

The Parent as Citizen is published by the University of Minnesota Press.

Brian Duff

Brian Duff received his Ph.D. from the University of California Berkeley. He has published a number of articles in periodicals such as The Journal of Family History and Public Opinion Quarterly and in collections of essays, such as Rousseau and Desire and Social Identity, Intergroup Conflict, and Conflict Reduction.

In his current research, Duff has been critically examining public policy, engagements with political theory, and the examination of public opinion data about how ideas about parenthood and children affect political attitudes and behavior. He also has an ongoing project examining new ways to understand who votes and who does not in America. In addition, he publishes research on the role of ideas about sexuality in masculine and feminine identity.

Duff is frequently interviewed by Maine and New Hampshire media outlets for his insights into state and regional politics.

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