The Born Identity
In the wake of the stunning election results on November 6th, much ink has been spilled (and bandwidth filled) discussing macro-demographics and their impact on the national political landscape. While I find that topic fascinating, I am also deeply interested in the issue of micro-demographics like heredity and social constructs, and how they influence the political landscape of the individual. Can we really inherit our political leanings? Are they shaped by our environment … or do we all eventually shape our environments to suit our inborn beliefs?
Rose McDermott of Brown University has been doing research in this area based on studies of identical and fraternal twins and has coauthored a paper entitled “The Genetics of Politics” purporting to establish a definite genetic component to political attitudes. While McDermott stresses her studies can’t predict whether a certain individual will vote Democratic or Republican based on genetics, she feels they can predict with some reliability whether that person might have a conservative or liberal world view.
But the research never got picked up by political scientists or social scientists; it just kind of stayed in the genetics community until the last seven or eight years. These studies really show that a very large proportion of our political preferences along a broad spectrum of conservative to liberal come from hereditary components… We really do mean it in the broad spectrum of conservative to liberal, not in the restricted American sense of difference between Republicans and Democrats. And that doesn’t mean that you’re born with a particular attitude toward a particular thing like capital punishment… But the underlying propensity to be pretty conservative about protecting your in-group, to be protective about sex and reproductive issues, or to be quite liberal about them, appears to have this genetic foundation.
McDermott’s conclusions about genetic influences in political affiliation remain controversial, and there are all kinds of competing theories on what makes us vote the way we do. George Lakoff is a well-known, often-quoted American linguist and writer who has devoted himself in recent years to a study of the determining factors in political attitudes and outlooks. He feels the differences between conservatives and liberals are largely shaped by environment and stem from the individual’s acceptance of metaphor, specifically on the concept of family. (Conservatives, he says, view government from the “strict father” metaphor while liberals have internalized a “nurturing family” metaphor.) There are also various interesting tests that seek to match political views with different personality types. These are fun to play with but of course in that case the question remains moot because we are still a long way from knowing whether personality itself is God-given, genetically determined, or shaped by environmental influences.
Studying the county-by-county map of American voting patterns doesn’t shed much light on the topic, either. Consider all those blue counties on the edges of the country, and the vast sea of red in between. Do all those people in Middle America vote conservative just because they are surrounded by others who vote that way… or because they inherited the political leanings of their parents in their DNA package along with eye color and shoe size? Or do the ones who disagree with their families and neighbors migrate to the coastal areas to surround themselves with like-minded people, thus creating their own political environment?
All fascinating questions, but right now I’m more interested in the opinions and anecdotal reports from you the readers, and particularly, your answers to any or all of these:
- Do you share the politics of most of your family, or are you a political rebel? If the latter, do you remember what experiences or influences caused you to follow a different path… or were you just “born that way?”
- Do you select your friends partly based on their politics, or is that issue of no consequence to you?
- All things being equal, would you choose a house in a neighborhood where others mostly shared your political views over one where they favored the other party?
- Do we have any representatives of Carville/Matalin couples here? If so, how do you and your spouse manage this issue, (hopefully) without resorting to violence?
It occurs to me that since I’m asking the questions I should also be prepared to answer them, so here goes:
- I was born into a very conservative rural family and remained a staunch conservative myself until well into my 20s. But whether or not conservatism was my “born identity”, I began to change my attitudes after my children were born. It was hard to remain morally opposed to abortion when I found myself wondering how I would react if one of my own sweet daughters came home pregnant at 13. Or favoring capital punishment when I knew how I would feel about that sentence if my own beloved son killed somebody for whatever reason. I’m still pretty conservative on fiscal issues… things like easy welfare and wasteful expansion of government programs… but by now I’m very socially liberal. (On second thought it’s possible I did inherit my eventual outlook. Perhaps my mother held private liberal views that she kept wisely to herself. At any rate, I never heard her express a political opinion of any kind.)
- I have several friends I’ve known since childhood who are fiercely conservative… anti-immigrant, anti-gay, etc. I still love them a lot, but when they express these intolerant views I find that it’s just a bit harder to like them.
- I don’t care much about my neighbors’ political views (which I suspect are pretty conservative, too). I’m not all that social, and I make it a firm policy to avoid talking about politics in social settings.
- I can’t imagine living with an “Archie Bunker” guy. The one I’ve lived with for all these years is not “this way”, but he is opposed to gay marriage. Not the reality, just the word. He feels “marriage” refers to a man-woman relationship, and gay unions should go by some other term. Since he is almost as liberal as I am, this seems just to be some maniacally stubborn kind of semantic hair-splitting but it still drives me nuts, and has caused many heated discussions at our breakfast table over the years.
So those are my responses. All of yours will be much appreciated. Maybe by the end of our conversation, we can even cast some light on “the born identity”, nature versus nurture question… at least where politics is concerned!
- Liberals, Conservatives, and the Abuse of Science (alittletourinyellow.wordpress.com)
- Researchers suggest your basic political leanings may be coded in your genes (pri.org)
- Republican Gene Identified (genotopia.scienceblog.com)
- [tt] NS 2889: Does your biology influence your vote? (stirling-westrup-tt.blogspot.com)
- Free will, Genes and Determinism (enlightenedscot.wordpress.com)