Are Our Personal Politics Determined by Our Genes?

Human Rights

Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and author Thomas Edsall wrote an Op-Ed on-line in the Times Tuesday that attempts to answer the age-old mystery of why so many poor, working-class and lower-middle-class whites consistently vote against their own interests. In other words, why do they vote Republican when the GOP has the well-stated goal of eviscerating the social safety net upon which many of these voters depend?

The answer, my friend, is not blowing in the wind. But it may be woven into the DNA strand. That's right, personal politics might be genetic, at least in part. Not especially good news for progressives . . . or people who believe in free will.

Edsall reports on two recent research papers that come to this conclusion. In one,“Obedience to Traditional Authority: A heritable factor underlying authoritarianism, conservatism and religiousness,” published by the journal Personality and Individual Differences in 2013, three psychologists write that “authoritarianism, religiousness and conservatism,” which they call the “traditional moral values triad,” are “substantially influenced by genetic factors.”

Edsall writes:

According to the authors — Steven Ludeke of Colgate, Thomas J. Bouchard of the University of Minnesota, and Wendy Johnson of the University of Edinburgh — all three traits are reflections of “a single, underlying tendency,” previously described in one word by Bouchard in a 2006 paper as “traditionalism.” Traditionalists in this sense are defined as “having strict moral standards and child-rearing practices, valuing conventional propriety and reputation, opposing rebelliousness and selfish disregard of others, and valuing religious institutions and practices.”

We would probably quibble with lumping in "selfish disregard for others" with that definition of traditional. Just saying.

Another study was performed on identical and fraternal twins, always useful to tease out genetic question since identical twins share all genes. Edsall reports that:

Amanda Friesen, a political scientist at Indiana University, and Aleksander Ksiazkiewicz, a graduate student in political science at Rice University, concluded from their study comparing identical and fraternal twins that “the correlation between religious importance and conservatism” is “driven primarily, but usually not exclusively, by genetic factors.” The substantial “genetic component in these relationships suggests that there may be a common underlying predisposition that leads individuals to adopt conservative bedrock social principles and political ideologies while simultaneously feeling the need for religious experiences.”

So genetic causality or at least correlation is not particularly good news for Democrats or progressives (not the same, alas) favoring abortion-rights, same sex marriage, and government programs that help the less fortunate. But the silver-lining is that it's not so good for Republicans committed to depriving women of the right to choose abortion, heteronormative marriage laws, the primacy of family, ya-de-ya-de-ya. Because if everything is genetic, no one is going to be convincing anyone of anything. And there's a whole lot of wasted verbiage being spewed to convince people to change their minds.

This research is pretty controversial as you can imagine. But there is some real data to contend with. It gets pretty technical, but there is a significantly lower correlation in political attitudes between fraternal twins and identical twins. You can access the details here.

West Virginia is a persistent mystery to Edsall (and the rest of us):

West Virginia embodies this paradox. The state is very poor. Median family income puts West Virginia 48th in the nation, just above Mississippi and Arkansas. Nearly one out of five residents, 18.4 percent, received food stamps in 2012 and more, 22 percent, are on Medicaid a percentage that isexpected to approach 25 percent as more residents take advantage of the Affordable Care Act expansion.

The percentage of working age West Virginians with a disability, 16.4 percent, is the highest in the country. But in 2012, West Virginia rejected President Obama out of hand. Mitt Romney won all of West Virginia’s 55 counties, 41 of them with more than 60 percent of the vote. Nineteen out of twenty West Virginians, 94 percent, are white, a level topped only by Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and Idaho.

The question remains of what use the potential heritability of political attitudes is. But increasingly, there does seem to be science behind the notion that liberals and conservatives have different kinds of genes and different kinds of brains. Edsall writes:
Jim A.C. Everett, a doctoral candidate in experimental psychology at Oxford who was a visiting scholar at Yale earlier this year, writes in a 2013 paper that there has been “a marked increase in research suggesting that there may be consistent differences in the way liberals and conservatives think and perceive, and that these underlying differences may actually nudge individuals toward one end of the political spectrum or the other.” In particular, Everett notes, the need for “order, structure, closure, certainty, dogmatism, and discipline are often shown to be more central to the thinking of conservative proponents, whereas higher tolerance of ambiguity and complexity and greater openness to new experiences appear to be associated with liberal cognitive styles.”
Read the whole article here.

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