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:

  1. 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?”
  2. Do you select your friends partly based on their pol­i­tics, or is that issue of no con­se­quence to you?
  3. 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?
  4. 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:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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!