The Hunt for Conservative and Liberal Genes

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Based on “new findings involving behavioral genetics,” reports the Chronicle of Higher Education,
a growing clump of contemporary social scientists agrees with Gilbert
and Sullivan that both liberals and conservatives (but especially
conservatives) are the product of nature, although they seem to find
nature’s production of conservatives more tragic than comic.

Swimming upstream against the strong current of conventional campus
wisdom holding that just about everything controversial –race, sexual
preference, IQ, gender identity and even gender itself — is “socially
constructed,” these behavioral geneticists believe that political
differences are not caused primarily by conflicting ideologies or moral
visions but instead are deeply rooted in the psyche and even the genes.
As one of these scholars put it, “The differences between political left
and right are now being recognized as ‘very deep and psychological,
such that they connect with very basic personality tendencies that don’t
really have anything in particular to do with politics.'” One estimate
“showed that as much as 40 percent of a person’s political orientation
can be explained by genes.”

This biological or psychic determinism — the peculiar notion that fundamental political differences “don’t really have anything in particular to do with politics” — should explain liberals as well as conservatives. Most of its practitioners, however, seem to assume that liberal values such as fairness and compassion are, for lack of a better term, normal and that it is conservatives’ beliefs and values that are different, even deviant, and thus in need of explanation… John Jost, a professor of psychology at NYU, sees conservative “aversion to ambiguity, a sense of threats, and disgust.” Scott Eidelman, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Arkansas, says “conservatives generally crave closure, prefer to act quickly, choose instinctive solutions.” Riley Dunlap, a sociologist at Oklahoma State, thinks the effort to be fair and balanced is misguided. “I’m not personally convinced that there is an equal balance of bias,” he says. “I believe that we see things like authoritarianism, dogmatism, closed-mindedness, to be distributed currently more on the right than on the left….”

Conservative Views Are ‘Alien to Us’

Liberalism, according to the new behavioral geneticists and genetically inclined psychologists, is the norm; conservatives are different. Chris Mooney, author of the recently published The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science–and Reality (Wiley), interviewed a number of these scholars and reassured liberals in a long AlterNet post, “How the Right-Wing Brain Works and What That Means for Progressives,” that they are right to believe that the “views and actions” of conservatives are “completely alien to us — or worse….” The research of these scholars, Mooney continued, “suggests that there really is a science of conservative morality, and it really is very different from liberal morality.”

One of those interviewed by Mooney is George Lakoff, the loopy Berkeley linguist who has been “framing” the argument that conservatives are Neanderthal knuckle-draggers (albeit often “nice people”) for more than a decade to appreciative audiences of Democrats and assorted liberals. Naturally Mooney and Lakoff agree on quite a bit, such as Mooney’s belief that Republicans are impervious to facts. “Facts clearly don’t change their minds–if anything, they make matters worse! Lakoff, too, emphasizes how refuting a false conservative claim can actually reinforce it.”

Lakoff’s signature “frame,” set forth in his 2002 book, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, and in this typical interview back in 2003, is that “the conservative moral system … has as its highest value preserving and defending the ‘strict father’ system…. Meanwhile, liberals’ conceptual system of the ‘nurturant parent’ has as its highest value helping individuals who need help.” As I noted in an early criticism of Lakoff (“How Not To Think About How Liberals And Conservatives Think”), Lakoff’s “nurturing parent” is simply the nanny state writ small. “Protection is an important value,” he had written. “Think of the things that nurturing parents want to protect their children from, not just crime and drugs but also cars without seat belts, tobacco, chemicals in the environment, unscrupulous businesses, namely all the things that liberals would like the government to protect citizens from.”

You’ll Find Mom in the Kitchen

On this Lakoffian view the conservative is a wholly different being; his father (the mother is cowering in the kitchen) knows nothing of nurture.

The strict father is the moral authority who supports and defends the family, tells his wife what to do, and teaches his kids right from wrong. The only way to do that is through painful discipline – physical punishment that by adulthood will become internal discipline…. The good citizens are the disciplined ones – those who have already become wealthy or at least self-reliant – and those who are on the way…. Wealth is a measure of discipline….”

Lest anyone fail to see the clear political implications of this analysis, Lakoff added: “In the strict father model, the big thing is discipline and moral authority, and punishment for those who do something wrong. That comes out very clearly in the Bush administration’s foreign and domestic policy.”

The new behavioral geneticists in large part are trying to provide a scientific basis for the reductionist generalizations offered by Lakoff. They are trying, as the recent Chronicle of Higher Education article linked above puts it, “to get a better understanding of the pathways that lead from biology to brainwaves to ballots.”

Maybe they, along with Gilbert and Sullivan, are right. Maybe Darren Schreiber, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California at San Diego quoted in the Chronicle article who “claims an 82-percent accuracy rate in identifying a person’s partisan orientation by looking at scans of his or her brain activity,” will eventually get up to 100%. Maybe Paul Krugman was wrong (he often is) when he insisted, with little success as I noted here, that “Ideas Are Not The Same As Race.” He was trying to explain that scientists are liberal because they “actually know science” and that it was OK for conservatives, but not for blacks, to be underrepresented on college faculties because “you can choose your ideology, but not your race.” Well, the scholars discussed here would say, maybe not.

Maybe, that is, little liberals and conservatives really are born, not bred. I certainly have neither the ability nor the interest to evaluate the research findings of behavioral geneticists, much less to say anything of value on the ongoing war between partisans of nature and nurture. My quarrel is not with the argument that political morality is deeply rooted in the psyche (or even below) — maybe it is; maybe it isn’t — but with the laughably facile, value-laden caricatures of “liberal” and “conservative” that seem to inform so much of this scholarship, especially since yesterday’s liberal is often today’s conservative.

Do Genes Allow Liberals to Reverse Themselves?

It hasn’t been long, after all, since liberals filled the ranks of First Amendment absolutists; led the struggle to achieve colorblind justice based on what they agreed is the fundamental right to be treated without regard to race, creed, or color; and adamantly opposed what they derided as the “imperial presidency” of Richard Nixon and George Bush. Now many of those same liberals lead the ranks of those seeking to restrict political speech in the name of campaign finance reform, censor “hate speech,” and even curtail speech tending to create a “hostile work environment”; in the name of “affirmative action” they fervently support the state dispensing benefits and burdens based on race; and they support a president who governs by executive order, refusing with increasing frequency to execute the laws passed by Congress and even, as with the recent “Dream Act” executive order, implementing a policy that Congress had explicitly rejected. Even Politico, an Obama-friendly site, says the president’s “policy strategy” is to “Ignore laws,” and the equally Obama-friendly Christian Science Monitor asks whether the immigration order “mean(s) unchecked presidential power?”

If our personal politics is the product not of our values and ideologies but instead determined by something deeply imbedded in our psyches and genes, how does it change so effortlessly in sync with the shifting tides of partisanship? How, that is, can conservatism and liberalism be psychically or genetically determined if their content is so malleable?

Ezra Klein, after also consulting a bunch of social scientists (who else?), thinks he has has the answer, and he has just shared it at some length with New Yorker readers here. Klein tries to explain our current Congressional gridlock and why some partisans change their positions on issues — some conservatives, for example, used to support the individual mandate; some liberals used to oppose it. Not surprisingly, Klein being Klein and The New Yorker being The New Yorker, the liberals changed because they were being reasonable and thought they could gather some conservative support; the conservatives changed because their atavistic tribal loyalties inexorably lead them to say no whenever liberals say yes.

Klein quotes Jonathan Haidt, whom I discussed here, making the point that principles — in fact, reason itself — is the handmaiden of baser urges.

Haidt sees the role that reason plays as akin to the job of the White House press secretary. He writes, “No matter how bad the policy, the secretary will find some way to praise or defend it. Sometimes you’ll hear an awkward pause as the secretary searches for the right words, but what you’ll never hear is: ‘Hey, that’s a great point! Maybe we should rethink this policy.’ Press secretaries can’t say that because they have no power to make or revise policy. They’re told what the policy is, and their job is to find evidence and arguments that will justify the policy to the public.” For that reason, Haidt told me, “once group loyalties are engaged, you can’t change people’s minds by utterly refuting their arguments. Thinking is mostly just rationalization, mostly just a search for supporting evidence.”

Haidt’s epistemology is non-partisan; in his view the reasoned arguments of both liberals and conservatives are rationalizations. And to be fair, Klein also cites studies showing liberals changing their tune to conform to the party position, but the thrust of his article, the actual political issues he discusses, all highlight Republican tribalism. Some Republicans may indeed have flip-flopped on the individual mandate, or on cap and trade, or whatever, but there’s nothing here approaching the magnitude of liberal reversals over the past generation or so on free speech, colorblind equality, and the imperial presidency. Nor is there any mention of liberal theorists like Stanley Fish (if there’s a conservative Fish, I don’t know who it is) who reject principles on principle and elevate what most people regard as hypocrisy to a virtue. (I have developed my argument with Fish here, here, here, and here.)

What Are Genes Telling Obama Now?

Klein’s argument boils down to the view that Republicans don’t really believe what they’ve been saying about Obamacare, the stimulus, cap and trade, etc. All that pap is just “motivated reasoning,” he claims, Yale law and psychology professor Dan Kahan’s term for people “conforming their assessments of information to some interest or goal that is independent of accuracy.”

If Klein’s social science experts are to be believed, however, there’s not much reason to believe Klein. Presumably his reliance on all the social science he cites is merely a “rationalization” for his own pre-existing anti-Republican views, a conclusion that is re-enforced by the absence in his piece of any notion that the liberals arguments on Obamacare, the stimulus, etc., might also serve “some interest or goal that is independent of accuracy.”

Remember when Obama complained that the Bush administration had a habit of “hid[ing] behind executive privilege every time there’s something a little shaky that’s taking place” and urging it to consider “coming clean”? Obviously Obama doesn’t. Regarding what to do with young illegal immigrants, last July President Obama told La Raza that “I know some people want me to bypass Congress and change the laws on my own…. Believe me … the idea of doing things on my own is very tempting,” but “that’s not how our system works.” And last September he lamented to the Hispanic Caucus, “‘I wish I had a magic wand and could make this all happen on my own….’ Obama told the group. ‘There are times where — I’d like to work my way around Congress.'” In September 2011 he asserted authoritatively that “I just have to continue to say this notion that somehow I can just change the laws unilaterally is just not true…. [T]here are laws on the books that I have to enforce…. But we live in a democracy. You have to pass bills through the legislature, and then I can sign it.”

Klein probably submitted his article before Obama discovered that he has a magic wand after all, that ignoring Congress isn’t ignoring Congress but simply “giv[ing] Homeland Security and our law enforcement officials the opportunity to enforce the law with some discretion.” Otherwise he surely would have mentioned this colossal reversal and discussed whether it had genetic or deeply psychic origins.

But really, there’s no need. It doesn’t take a social scientist to explain why partisans act like partisans. Moreover, one does not have to deny the influence, even a possibly controlling influence, of genetics and deep psychological influences on values and ideology — indeed, no one can read about the famous University of Minnesota Study of Twins reared apart in this excellent review of this fascinating book about it without being impressed by the powerful influence of genes — in order to dismiss the genetic and psychic reductionism of the sort of social science cited here as unpersuasive. Perhaps the abolitionists, to take an example from history, had unhappy childhoods or suffered “status anxiety,” as Richard Hofstadter used to argue, but that really says nothing about the validity of their critique of slavery. Even if nativist paranoia has been “a recessive gene in the American character,” as Hofstadter also argued in The Paranoid Style in American Politics, that is neither a sufficient criticism of any particular proposal to curtail illegal immigration nor a relevant defense of any particular amnesty policy. Whatever their origins, ideas have lives of their own and must be treated seriously.

In short, reductionist attempts to undermine or dismiss political arguments by tracing their origins to allegedly deeper roots is no more persuasive than the discredited efforts of crude Marxists to dismiss religion and morality as mere “superstructure” produced to rationalize their allegedly economic foundations.

John S. Rosenberg

John Rosenberg blogs at Discriminations.

6 thoughts on “The Hunt for Conservative and Liberal Genes

  1. Most liberals practice “altruism by proxy”. They are not PERSONALLY generous (witness the low levels of charitible giving always revealed when the progressive income tax returns are aired and the studies showing that progressives are less charitable with their money and time).
    But they think that being for forced charity (which they themselves often dodge through their well-documented affinity for and tolerance of tax-cheating) makes them good people. And then they’re shocked when we don’t agree.

  2. How do these researchers explain folks like me, David Horowitz, et al, who were rabidly liberal for a large part of their lives and then changed their positions? Was that due to gene therapy?

  3. Interesting piece.
    The Gilbert and Sullivan opening is somewhat paradoxical, in that “liberal” in 1882 England would mean Gladstonean liberal, and “conservative” would mean Tory. So the Gilbert and Sullivan theory really differs widely from that of Jost, Lakoff, etc. The latter are embedded in a social-democratic outlook that didn’t develop and come to dominate the academic set until after 1882.

  4. i’m glad that the writer and author can see that liberals are as contradictory as the neocons regardless of the cause. but even those who profess to be bright enough to acknowledge a dynamic relationship between nature and nurture still betray a bias- that there is a ‘nature’ separate from ‘nurture’. we mystical metaphysical types who are but a scientist who consistently follows through will tell you that all is one. the same thing that makes our atoms and dna is the same thing that determines our socio economics. but like the universe is an asymmetrical manifestation of perfect symmetry, so the left, the right and the humanist/scientists are uneven, lumpy inconsistent in their thinking and behavior. people are incapable of consistency by their very makeup and not ‘outer’ ‘first cause’ that ‘makes them’ do other than they ‘should’.

  5. I thought the current conventional “wisdom” on campus was that every boy and every gel that’s born into this world alive is either a little homo or a little hetero, and therefore it is “hate” to condemn the behavior of those who are “born that way!”

  6. This shows, if evidence is still needed, that “science” has nothing to do with “social science.”
    Do federal dollars support this so-called “research.”

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