New Research: How Childhood 4th of July Celebrations Affect Adult Political Behavior

June 29, 2011
by Doug Gavel

Not every child in America has the opportunity to attend Fourth of July celebrations, but those that do are prone to be more politically engaged and associate more closely with the Republican Party than their peers. Those are two conclusions in a new research paper co-authored by Harvard Kennedy School Assistant Professor David Yanagizawa-Drott and Bocconi University Assistant Professor Andreas Madestam.

The paper, titled “Shaping the Nation: Estimating the Impact of Fourth of July Using a Natural Experiment,” examines how important childhood experiences shape political views and behavior patterns later in life by investigating the impact of youth participation in Independence Day activities and adult engagement in the political process.

“In 2010, an estimated 144 million Americans age 18 or older celebrated Fourth of July by attending a barbecue. Another 98 million watched the fireworks or went to a community festivity, while more than 28 million saw a parade,” the authors write. “Beyond the immediate fervor of the festivity, however, do national day celebrations matter? Does participation in national ceremonies and parades have a deeper impact by affecting children’s political beliefs, identity, and behavior?”

Researchers face two main challenges when they examine how important formative experiences in childhood affect later-life outcomes. First, it is difficult to disentangle the causal impact of any particular experience – may it be the family, the education system, peers, or an event such as Fourth of July. Second, there is a lack of data linking childhood experiences to adult outcomes.

In their paper, the researchers use a simple but novel strategy to address these problems: they use historical data on rainfall on Fourth of July. When it rains children and their parents are less likely to participate and the events are often cancelled. Moreover, since rain is a random event, some children growing up experience nice weather and are more likely to celebrate, while others are hit by bad weather making it less likely that they join the festivities. This allows the researchers to isolate the effect of attending the celebrations from other important factors such as family background and education.

Key conclusions in the paper include:

• Fourth of July celebrations have a significant impact upon people’s political preferences;
• Attending one Fourth of July before age 18 increases the likelihood of identifying as a Republican by at least 2 percent and voting for the Republican candidate by 4 percent. It also increases voter turnout by 0.9 percent and boosts political campaign contributions by 3 percent.

“We were surprised to find that childhood experiences of Fourth July celebrations could have such persistent effects. The evidence suggests that important childhood events can have a permanent impact on political beliefs and behavior and that Fourth of July celebrations in the US affect the nation's political landscape,” concludes Yanagizawa-Drott.

David Yanagizawa-Drott is an assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. His research interests include economic development and political economy, with special focus on civil conflict, health, information and mass media. He has explored issues such as the impact of hate propaganda on violence during the 1994 Rwanda Genocide, the relationship between the government and the mass media, and how price information affects the functioning of agricultural markets in developing countries.

Andreas Madestam is an assistant professor in the Department of Economics at Bocconi University in Milan, Italy. His research focuses on development, finance, and political economy. Current work investigates the impact of school fees on primary education in Cambodia, whether there is gender discrimination in less developed credit markets, and the formation and persistence of trust in early twentieth century United States.

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Photograph of 4th of July parade

The annual Fourth of July parade, July 4, 2010, Virginia City, Nevada.

“We were surprised to find that childhood experiences of Fourth July celebrations could have such persistent effects. The evidence suggests that important childhood events can have a permanent impact on political beliefs and behavior and that Fourth of July celebrations in the US affect the nation's political landscape,” concludes Yanagizawa-Drott.

Photograph of Assistant Professor David Yanagizawa-Drott

Assistant Professor David Yanagizawa-Drott

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