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Genetics may make political arguments unwinnable

If you and I entertain such inherently different preferences about the sort of society in which we want to live that common ground is limited, can expansive, top-down policy-making ever be anything more than an in-your-face power play? If political arguments are doomed to be unpersuasive to much of the opposition, no matter how well-stated, because of vast and largely unmovable differences in values and assumptions, isn’t keeping state interference in people’s lives to a minimum a matter not just of political preference, but the only course for avoiding a permanent state of low-level civil war?

I’ve written before about Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt‘s interesting research into the moral foundations of ideology and the different values and assumptions that separate liberals, conservatives and libertarians. These differences hold strong implications for the likely outcome of policy debates, since they make it clear that various factions often speak past each other, since they’re working from varying moral emphases and different concepts of good and bad when it comes to both means and ends — even the language they use can be confusing, since meanings of words vary among the factions.

Now Haidt comes forward with new information suggesting that conversation among ideological opponents can be even more difficult than previously thought. In an article (not yet online), “Born This Way?”, in the latest issue of Reason, Haidt writes of evidence that our ideology is, partially, determined by genetic factors that govern our risk aversion and our openness to new experiences. These innate traits then nudge us along paths in life that tend to reinforce our inherent inclinations.

Haidt is careful to emphasize that we’re not hard-wired into our political beliefs. He’s talking about a nudge that is likely to be self-reinforcing rather than genetically predetermined belief systems.

Genetics explains between one-third and one-half of the variability among people in their political attitudes. Being raised in a liberal or conservative household accounts for much less.

Our genetic traits lead us to respond to situations, pick careers, choose neighborhoods and associate with people in ways that reinforce our tendencies. Haidt points out that society has changed in recent years in ways that make it increasingly easy to surround ourselves with the familiar and like-minded and disassociate from people and situations that would pull us in a different direction.

Technology and changing residential patterns have allowed each of us to isolate ourselves within cocoons of likeminded individuals. In 1976, only 27 percent of Americans lived in “landslide” counties — counties that voted either Democratic or Republican by a margin of 20 percentage points or more. But the number has risen steadily; in 2008, 48 percent of Americans lived in a landslide county.

This same point about Americans self-sorting ourselves along ideological lines was made several years in The Big Sort by Bill Bishop and Robert G. Cushing. Now, Haidt tells us that we’re actually reinforcing genetic traits.

I don’t see anything in this research that’s guaranteed to make liberals, conservatives and libertarians like each other more, or find each other more sympathetic. But I do see lessons here regarding the limits of debate and the wisdom of letting people live their own lives with minimal interference. If we don’t just choose to embrace vastly different beliefs, but we entertain beliefs toward which we’re nudged by our internal source codes, it strikes me as both arrogant and cruel to impose policies on one another that must always be perceived by our opponents as alien and incomprehensible.

Democracy doesn’t change this dynamic, since democratic outcomes may just represent differences in genetic distributions across various populations, with the same impossibility of converting opponents to the majority’s way of thinking.

Yes, we need to be better about trying to understand each other, but I think it’s even more important to make allowances for each other’s preferences. The emphasis should be less on winning overall policy battles than on making as much space as possible for people to live according to their own beliefs — beliefs, it seems, that have their roots at the genetic level.

Posted in Political Divide


  • “risk aversion”, read rational thought and consideration. As many people have noted (ex. http://pages.interlog.com/~girbe/leftists.html), the leftists are often both stupid and borderline insane.
    “openness to new experiences”, read experience hunter. What is very often missing from such people is consideration of others – like the family who has to cart you around in a wheel-chair for the rest of your life.
    Drug-addicts are poster children for what happens when people are possessed of both the above attributes. Weed-smoking hippies were definitive as leftists.

    Haidt is working from the high-level abstractions, not from what is foundational to them. (Also, just how well is he distinguishing between the mental environment in which you are raised, and actual genetics?)

    Beyond this, it is trivial to note that something like Chinese Communism also achieves the goal of a stable society. So, please. All that the capitalist system has going for it is that it is the MOST efficient system there is, given real world constraints.

    I’m sorry, but I am completely unmoved by this ‘work’.

  • “Borderline insane” is a slippery concept, but it’s worth noting that Haidt found both conservatives and libertarians to be good at thinking like adherents of other ideologies when called upon to do so — they could step outside themselves and into their opponents’ heads. Liberals were largely incapable of doing that. An interesting and, I suspect, important datum.

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