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The Child-Beating Mandate of George W. Bush

Just last week, I finally turned in the last of the paperwork on my Master's Thesis. It's about the attitudes education students have about the use of corporal punishment in schools, based on a bunch of qualitative interviews I completed in the late 1990s. Corporal punishment, for those of you who aren't familiar with the term, refers to physical forms of punishment (not to be confused with capital punishment, which refers to forms of punishment which involve a person being put to death). Most people still use colloquial terms to talk about corporal punishment, and you may be familiar with these: spanking, paddling, caning, lashing, popping, smacking, whupping, beating and so on. Each of these words refers to a certain kind of corporal punishment and carries special connotations, so most professionals use the general, more neutral term corporal punishment, and I'll do so in this article as well.

What a lot of people don't know is that corporal punishment is still in common use in public schools in the United States. Most states have outlawed the practice, regarding it as outdated, cruel, and ineffective. However, a large minority of states (22 out of 50) have refused to pass legislation banning corporal punishment in public schools, and in most of these states, the corporal punishment of students is rampant. As a former teacher in the Memphis City Schools, I've witnessed a wide range of physically abusive discipline of students, ranging from holding dictionaries over the head for over 30 minutes by elementary school students, to paddlings of groups of middle school students on stage in front of the entire student body during assemblies, to plain, old-fashioned spankings in the hall by frustrated teachers. All of these practices are permissible under state law. Why, just this January our local newspaper ran a story about public high school football players being struck by their coaches with wooden paddles as punishment for not getting good enough grades in class.

During the course of the literature review I conducted for my Thesis, I read many research articles describing various associations between support for corporal punishment and Southern culture. I wondered if this cultural association might show up in the geographical distribution of laws permitting and forbidding the corporal punishment of children in public schools. No state-by-state map showing this distribution was available, so I made my own, shown below.

corporal punishment law by state, united states

In this map, states which have outlawed the corporal punishment of children in public schools are colored blue, and states which still allow children to be corporally punished are colored red. As is clear to see, there is a clear regional pattern in the distribution of the legal corporal punishment of public school students. In a solid line from the Deep South, through Texas and all the way to Arizona corporal punishment remains legal in public schools. Some extensions of this pattern reach up the Rockies and through the northern rim of the Appalachians, so it is not accurate to say that only the South allows the corporal punishment of its public school students. It is accurate, however, to say that the South is set apart from all other regions of the United States by the strong majority of its states that have passed no law to outlaw the corporal punishment of children in their public schools.

Culture is a funny thing, with connections in places you just wouldn't normally think to look for them. Looking at the map that I had created to show the distribution of laws outlawing corporal punishment in schools, it occurred to me that I had seen a map very much like it not too long ago, with red and blue states and strong regional differences.

Of course, the other map was the one you see below: shown to the entire nation for weeks, last November and December, except that Florida wasn't given a color for a long time. It's the map showing the electoral college victories of George W. Bush and Al Gore, with Gore in blue and Bush in red.

election 2000 electoral college results by state

Notice some similarities? Now, of course the distributions shown by these two maps are not identical. Some votes that have outlawed corporal punishment in public schools voted for Bush in the electoral college and a few that still allow corporal punishment voted for Al Gore. However, the pattern is clear. By and large, those states that still allow their public schools to strike children in order to punish them or otherwise discipline them were won by Bush. What's more, that same regional pattern centered in Texas is present on both maps.

Of course, maps only tell so much. Let's look at the numbers. Political analysts often talk about different candidates getting the support of different "votes". For example, in the 1996 Presidential election, Clinton was said to have gotten the "black vote", meaning that the majority of African-American voters ended up voting for him. I think it's high time that we started tracking the child-beater vote, measuring with each Presidential election which candidate gets the support of those who hold that the corporal punishment of children in public school should be legal. Unfortunately, voter registration records don't keep track of individual preferences for the discipline of public school students. We can, however, see which candidate gets the child-beater vote by seeing how entire states vote in the electoral college.

So, which presidential candidate got the child-beater vote last year? The graph below reveals the clear answer:

George W. Bush and corporal punishment laws

Who got the most electoral college votes from states that still allow children in their public schools to be beaten? It's George W. Bush, in a landslide. Of the 22 states in which public school corporal punishment is still legal, George W. Bush and his running-mate Dick Cheney won 19. Gore and Lieberman only got 3. The race was a little tighter for the states that don't let their public schools beat students for punishment, but Gore clearly came out ahead, with 17 states to Bush's 11. Gore got half as many electoral college votes from corporal punishment abolitionist states than did Bush.

The following graph shows the same numbers, but from a different angle, revealing the portion of each candidate's support that came from states in which public school corporal punishment is legal and states in which the practice is illegal.

President Bush and corporal punishment laws

Here again, the difference between the states that supported Gore and the states that gave their electoral college votes for Bush is very clear. The table below shows the numbers behind this graph.

Corporal punishment legal Corporal punishment illegal
Bush's support 63.3 percent 36.7 percent
Gore's support 15 percent 85 percent

63.3 percent of the states that gave George W. Bush an electoral college victory (in spite of his loss of the popular vote) allow children in their public schools to be beaten by teachers and administrators. On the other hand, only 15 percent of Gore's support came from such states. In fact, 85% of Gore's support came from states that have outlawed the corporal punishment of children by public school officials. George W. Bush may not have come out of last fall's election with a general mandate, but one specific mandate is clear: President Bush was voted into office by states that hold that it's a good idea to hit children every now and then.

We have yet to see whether President Bush will speak in open support of the corporal punishment of children in public schools. However, we it does seem that there's something about the Bush that appeals to those Americans who are most fond of using some form of physical violence to keep children under control. In short, Bush has the child-beater vote all wrapped up.

I'm not saying that voters all over the United States consciously voted for George W. Bush because they believe that he supports corporal punishment more than Al Gore. What the numbers do suggest is that there is a strong ideological link between support for the corporal punishment of children and the conservative policies promoted by Bush during his campaign.

That ideological connection makes me nervous. After all, the relationship between the American people and their government is in some respects like the relationship between child and adult. We trust the government to take care of the matters that we are unable to address as individuals, but we do so under the assurance that our trust will not be abused. George W. Bush was elected with the support of cultural conservatives who seem to believe that authority figures have the right to use violent as a tool for control when those over which they exercise authority become disobedient.

Will the old guard conservatives who make up Bush's administration be tempted to lash out in physical punishment when the American people talk back? When we fail to fall into line? When we don't stay in our seats? When we disobey? The mandate of George W. Bush is undeniable. We can only hope that he fails to follow through.



Spooky Spectres from the Presidential playground of King George The Second can also be found at the official website of The Ribald Reign of King George the Second.

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