Genes And Politics

Jul 16, 2014

Why do people vote the way they do?  If we are supposedly rational, self-interested beings, why, for example, do so many people dependent on government programs vote for Republican politicians so bent on eliminating their benefits?

There are many possible explanations for these oft-debated questions.  Studies of voting behavior belie the notion that reason is the sole motivator of political choice.  Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has shown that voters are more moved by intuition than by reason, and that conservatives and liberals also emphasize different core values beginning at an early age.  Now, recently published studies indicate that values central to our political orientation may also have a genetic basis.

A recent study of identical twins—published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences—shows that values of authoritarianism, religiousness, and conservatism are substantially influenced by genetic factors.  These values involve having “strict moral and child-rearing standards, valuing conventional propriety and reputation, opposing rebelliousness and selfish disregard of others, and valuing religious institutions and practices.”

A second study found a similar correlation between religious importance and conservatism . . . based also primarily on genetics.  According to study authors, there is a predisposition among some individuals to “adopt conservative bedrock social principles and political ideologies while feeling the need for religious experiences.”  They also found that the correlation between genes and beliefs is stronger in relation to social values than to economic attitudes.

One of the lessons from the field of behavioral genetics, however, is not to jump to the conclusion that genes wholly define who we are or determine our behavior.  For the most part, genes give people predispositions toward behaviors that require additional stimuli from the environment to bring something about.

Consider, for example, another recent study that showed how the historical period in which you came of age strongly influences voting preferences.  According to New York Times writer David Leonhardt, if you grew up during the administrations of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, or John Kennedy, for example, you’re more likely to be a Democrat.  If Ronald Reagan was president during your teenage years, you’re more likely to be a Republican.

What do these studies mean for us in our politically contentious age? Journalism professor Thomas Edsall suggests that research into human traits as they apply to political decision-making “can enhance our understanding of the larger framework within which public discourse and debate shape key outcomes.”

Such understanding may be interesting, but I’m not confident that many politicians are terribly interested in understanding or developing more constructive frameworks for policy debate.  In fact, we don’t have much meaningful political debate at all.

For us voters, recognizing the role genetics play in political perspectives and behavior may help us to find some measure of tolerance for those who hold views different from our own.  But on the other hand, these recent studies also reinforce the idea that we remain free to use this information about ourselves to be more critical in our political choices.

Voters might ask themselves whether the politicians who claim to represent them are really promoting their values.  Is voting against wild land conservation, for example, consistent with conservatism?  Is voting to cut assistance to the poor in favor of tax cuts for the wealthy consistent with religious tradition?  Such policies, after all, increase inequality and are corrosive to families and to social stability.

We should be also be alert as to how politicians and parties may use this research to make themselves more appealing.  Since we’re more genetically predisposed toward social values than toward economic ones, we should watch for how politicians may use appeals to social ideologies to gain votes to then push through economic policies that in the end aren’t good for us.  Think of how often politicians try to align themselves, for example, with what they call “Montana values.”

We are not, and should not be, beholden to genetic predispositions in matters of behavior.  Rationality and freedom of choice are what make us morally responsible beings.   Regardless of political leanings—whether influenced by genes, upbringing, or other factors outside our control—thinking critically about the values represented by political parties and candidates continues to be our crucial responsibility as citizens.

This is Mark Hanson, guest commentator for the Mansfield Program in Ethics and Public Affairs at the University of Montana.