How Much Do Our Genes Influence Our Political Beliefs?
It’s been a key question of American politics since at least 1968: Why do so many poor, working-class and lower-middle-class whites — many of them dependent for survival on government programs — vote for Republicans?
The debate over the motives of conservative low-income white voters remains unresolved, but two recent research papers suggest that the hurdles facing Democrats in carrying this segment of the electorate may prove difficult to overcome.
In “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.” 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.”
Working along a parallel path, 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.”
From this perspective, the Democratic Party — supportive of abortion rights, same-sex marriage and the primacy of self-expressive individualism over obligation to family — is irreconcilably alien to a segment of the electorate. And the same is true from the opposite viewpoint: a Republican Party committed to right-to-life policies, to a belief that marriage must be between a man and a woman, and to family obligation over self-actualization, is profoundly unacceptable to many on the left.
If these predispositions are, as Friesen and Ksiazkiewicz argue, to some degree genetically rooted, they may not lend themselves to rational debate and compromise.
There are many scholars who challenge the quality of the evidence amassed to date linking genes, politics and values. The field is highly controversial, to say the least. But let’s take a look.
The Ludeke paper uses a wide range of tests to compare the political, social, ideological and economic attitudes held by two sets of adult twins, identical (monozygotic) twins, who share all their genes, and fraternal (nonidentical or dizygotic) twins, who share roughly half of their genes.
The three psychologists found evidence that they believe demonstrates that authoritarianism, religiosity and conservatism are “different manifestations of a single latent and significantly heritable factor,” the tendency to follow conventional authority “in attitudes toward the structure of family and society, toward religious conventions, and toward conventional attitudes on political issues.” They argue that each of these traits is shared to a substantially greater degree among identical twins than among nonidentical twins, as shown by the correlations in Figure 1. (not shown)
In an email, Ludeke explained how to interpret this information: “These correlations represent the extent to which members of a given type of twin pair resemble each other for the trait in question,” he wrote. “Low correlations, like those we found for fraternal twins, indicate that knowing the scores of one twin won’t give you much, if any, clue for figuring out the scores of the other. On the other hand, based on the correlations presented here, knowing the scores of one identical twin gives you a pretty good indication of the scores of the other.”
The significance of the different correlations for identical and fraternal twins, Ludeke added, is that “when we see identical twins who are this similar, while fraternal twins are much less similar, we have a good indication that genes account for some of the difference between people for the trait in question.”
For their part, Friesen and Ksiazkiewicz contend that their “findings confirm the existence of a common genetic factor that underlies holding socially conservative policy positions, maintaining traditional values, and placing importance on religion in one’s life.”
Friesen and Ksiazkiewicz also report that the close linkages “only hold when we consider social ideology and a preference for stable values in organizing society.” The genetic linkages are much weaker, if present at all, “when we consider economic attitudes.”
In other words, some voters who hold authoritarian, religiously orthodox, traditionalist positions on social-cultural matters are liberal when it comes to economics, no matter how much they might object to describing themselves that way.
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 is expected to approach 25 percent as more residents take advantage of the Affordable Care Act expansion.
The percentage of workingage 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 55counties, 41 of them with more than 60 percent of the vote. Nineteen out of 20 West Virginians, 94 percent, are white, a level topped only by Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and Idaho.
The last time I wrote about research into the possible genetic underpinnings of partisan affiliation, Larry Bartels, a political scientist at Vanderbilt, raised an interesting question: “Will work of this sort really add to our understanding of politics?” His answer: “My own guess is, not much.” Bartels elaborated: “My argument is not that genetic explanations of political attitudes and behavior are infeasible (though they are sure to be extremely difficult to achieve) or illegitimate (though it is easy to imagine them being harnessed to unsavory political ends). It is simply that the real scientific payoff does not look worth the effort.”
I have long been an admirer of Bartels’s work, but in this case I think he is overlooking the potential productivity of this line of research.
The study of the heritability of attitudes, partisan inclinations and ideology is a nascent subfield in political science. It has the potential to provide insight into a host of crucial matters, including the roots of hostility between the contemporary right and left, and into how political parties alter their stands on issues in both practical and rhetorical terms.
To argue that a proclivity to adhere to one belief system over another may be to some degree heritable does not suggest that either the electorate or the political system is immutable or static. The constant emergence and re-emergence of issues in new forms – race, war and contraception in the 1960s, for example – forces coalitions to shift, politicians to adjust and voting patterns to change. In contrast to the dominance of economics in other eras (and sometimes in ours), the contemporary debate over gay marriage, new reproductive technologies, single parenthood and gender roles touches directly on our most deeply held feelings about tradition, religion and authority. It is these matters on which, Ludeke and others contend, voters have opinions that may have a component that is biologically underpinned.
The relative stability of the oscillation in American politics between dominant left and right coalitions is reflected in the outcome of the 19 presidential elections since 1940: Nine Republican victories; 10 for Democrats. In those races, the winner received less than 53 percent of the vote in 10 elections. This equilibrium suggests that political opinion may be less volatile, and more firmly grounded, than is sometimes suspected.
Dustin Tingley, a professor of government at Harvard, argues that “phenomena perennially hard to explain in standard political science become clearer when human interactions are understood in light of natural selection and evolutionary psychology.”
In an email, Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard and the author of “The Blank Slate,” makes the case for continued research in the broader field of evolutionary psychology and in the sub-field of politics and heritable temperamental traits.
“To the extent that my political opinions can be predicted by my genome, or by an identical twin separated from me at birth who grew up halfway across the world,” Pinker writes, “I have reason to question whether those opinions are justifiable by reason or evidence rather than a reflection of my temperament.”
Pinker contends that “an acknowledgment of the possibility of genetic differences is a game-changer for countless specific issues. If people differ genetically in conscientiousness, intelligence, and other psychological traits, then not all differences among people in social and economic outcomes are automatically consequences of a rigged system.”
This means, according to Pinker, that “the discovery that political ideologies are partly heritable points our attention to what the common psychological threads of competing ideologies are – namely temperamental differences such as authoritarianism, conscientiousness, and openness to experience, together with intellectual differences such as intelligence. These could help pinpoint some of the common denominators beneath competing ideologies which cut across the particular hot buttons of the particular era.”
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 paperthat 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.”
Perhaps the most important rationale for research into the heritability of temperamental and personality traits as they apply to political decision making is that such research can enhance our understanding of the larger framework within which public discourse and debate shape key outcomes.
Why are we afraid of genetic research? To reject or demonize it, especially when exceptional advances in related fields are occurring at an accelerating rate, is to resort to a know-nothing defense. A clear majority of those involved in the study of genetics, neuroscience and evolutionary biology are acutely aware of the tarnished research that produced racist, sexist and xenophobic results in the past. But as the probability of a repetition of abuses like these diminishes, restrictions on intellectual freedom, even if they consist only of psychological barriers, will prove counterproductive. We need every tool available to increase our understanding of our systems of self-governance and of how we came to be the political animals that we are.