Are Politics Genetic? The New Science of Political Physiology

Red or blue, right or left—we have plenty of ways to identify our politics, and they don’t usually include the anterior cingulate cortex. But what if political leanings are actually hard-wired? Political thought is the latest space for nature/nurture debate—with implications for the future of bipartisanship. If genes determine politics, is compromise really possible?

A relatively young field of research dubbed “political physiology” suggests that our political attitudes might have less to do with upbringing—or choice—than we imagine. According to a study by Rice University political scientist John Alford, political thinking has a genetic component. His large-scale twins study shows that identical twins are more likely than fraternal ones to share political positions, concluding that politics are indeed linked to genetic material. And since people aren’t often inclined to pair off with those who don’t share their political views (the odds a woman reports having similar views to her partner is 1 in 1.18, or about 85%), if politics are genetic, we’re likely to get them from both sides of the family tree.

The key difference is how our brains process information. Several studies show that conservative thinkers tend to respond more strongly to threats, while liberals are less easily startled. John Hibbing, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska, measured physiological responses to threatening stimuli, and found that participants’ threat-responses correlated strongly to political positions. Those who showed more severe responses to threats supported more “protectionist” policies like capital punishment and higher defense spending. Those who scored lower favored less-protectionist policies, like gun control, looser immigration regulations, and increased foreign aid. Physiological responses to fear, Hibbing says, are genetically based, so their correlation to political attitudes is strong evidence for the inheritability of politics.

What does this mean for the political process? President Obama has tried, largely unsuccessfully, to garner conservative support for his major reforms. He campaigned on a platform of bipartisanship, but the reality has proved difficult. And conservative-leaning Democrats are just as difficult to sway to the president’s agenda as Republicans.

This might be neuroscience at work on Capitol Hill. If conservative brains respond differently to stimuli than liberal ones, and those differences correlate to political views, will any amount of thoughtful debate make a real difference? Bipartisanship might be a nice thought, but if the new science of political physiology is on point, it’s probably unrealistic.

But what about when political views do change? Everyone knows someone who grew up to become the family political oddball, the instigator of many Thanksgiving dinner arguments. After all, younger people are more likely to be liberal than older people. The odds a person between the ages of 18 and 29 identifies as liberal are 1 in 3.23, while the odds for a person 50-64 are 1 in 5. Clearly, some young people depart from their parents’ views. If politics were all genetic, surely this wouldn’t happen. Alford, at Rice University, likens political attitudes to right or left-handedness—hard-wired, but not inflexible. There is no such thing as a Democrat or a Republican gene, per se. While Alford posits that political views are about 40-50% nature, the rest is, perhaps, up to us.

Of course, genetics isn’t a perfect science. Political genes are probably as surprising as those for hair color, or Grandma’s nose, or musical affinity. Maybe you can inherit liberal-mindedness from a great-aunt you didn’t know you had; maybe conservatism can skip a generation. But while it might make bipartisan politics more difficult, this new science does remind us to consider our political opponents’ gray matter before assuming they’re morally inferior.

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