Inheriting our politics, part 3

6 minute read

In part 1 of this series I referenced the paper “The genetics of politics: discovery, challenges, and progress”, a review of years of research on genetic influences on political attitudes, and discussed the general concept of heritability. In part 2 I discussed some of the findings referenced in the paper. In this third and final part I discuss some of the implications of these findings.

First and foremost is that if political attitudes are in fact significantly genetically influenced then political differences among people are inevitable. We will never convince our political opponents to agree with our positions starting from our own moral intuitions. It’s likely that the best we can do instead is to manage our political differences within a framework like representative democracy (“the worst form of government, except for all the others”) that can provide some assurance that the public good will be advanced, that winners of political contests will need to come back again to the voters at some point, and that losers of those contests will have another chance to be winners.1

If we can’t compel our political opponents into agreement based on our own premises and the force of our logic, how can we find any common ground at all, and any room for compromise? One approach is to accept that our own reasoning on political, moral, and related issues is often more rationalization of our existing biases than a disinterested search for truth, and to find ways to counter that affect. For example, we might grant that our opponents might actually have good reasons for having the positions they do, and seek to explore what those reasons are and what they imply. We might then use argument constructively, as a way to test the flaws in our own thinking and reason with others to come up with better solutions than we might discover on our own.2

But maybe some people don’t want to do that. Maybe they want to crush their political opponents like bugs and grind them into the dust—in other words, they’ll pursue the dream of the “permanent majority”. The problem, as noted in my previous post, is that although ideological stances (e.g., “conservative” or “liberal”) may be heritable, party affiliation is not; there are no “born Democrats” or “born Republicans”. Political parties are simply alliances of convenience formed to win and wield political power, and if a party finds itself consistently losing at the ballot box then it is free to redefine itself in a way so as to attract more voters. For example, a perpetually-losing Republican party could work to widen its appeal to non-white ethnic groups, while a perpetually-losing Democratic party could incrementally change its social or economic policies to peel off a fraction of social conservatives or libertarians currently voting for Republican candidates.

Party flexibility is especially important in the U.S. because for structural reasons it has only two dominant parties, and not everyone neatly sorts into the “liberal” and “conservative” buckets. In particular libertarians at least constitute a separate group in terms of their moral intuitions and other biases (see for example a study of libertarian psychology led by Ravi Iyer, a colleague of Jonathan Haidt), and some divide the electorate into even more groups based on their political attitudes. (For example, the Pew Political Typology divides U.S. voters into nine separate groups.)3

The two-party system in the U.S. thus doesn’t necessarily match up well with the actual attitudes of voters. This is probably a major reason why the group of nominally “independent” voters is growing—people who often lean toward one party or the other based on some shared attitudes or tactical considerations but who are not willing to wholly identify with a party. There are other ways to structure political institutions (for example, parliamentary systems) that are not as prone to two-party dominance, and other ways to run elections (for example, the single transferable vote and other forms of proportional representation) that can better reflect voter’s preferences. However they’re unlikely to be adopted in the U.S.

How then will politics evolve in the U.S.? Are we doomed to continued political polarization and elections cast as battles between good and evil? I can think of at least two possibilities. The first (touched on by Karl Zimmerman in his comment on Razib Khan’s post) is that Americans will self-sort into different states and other geographical areas by political disposition, and this tendency will then be reinforced by so-called assortative mating (e.g., conservatives marrying conservatives) and heritability of political attitudes (e.g., liberal parents having children predisposed to liberal attitudes).

The result would be a nation of “one-party states” within which politics could proceed based on a rough shared consensus on values, with intra-party factionalism taking the place of inter-party competition. There would still be gridlock at the national level, but the self-interest of states (particularly large prosperous ones whose residents contribute more in Federal taxes than they get back in Federal spending) might force a return to a more federal system, with the states taking over more functions of government and the level of Federal taxes and spending decreasing.

Another possibility is hinted at by one of the findings of the paper, namely that estimated heritability for various political attitudes decreased to almost zero in populations that had suffered major financial losses or gone through other life crises—in other words, any genetic predispositions present apparently didn’t affect those people’s attitudes in practice.

We can flip this around: It’s possible that the past several decades of relative peace and prosperity have affected political attitudes like the past century of improved nutrition has affected height, reducing the influence of environmental factors and increasing the influence of genetic predispositions—in effect allowing us the luxury of indulging in our own in-born ideological biases. At present the state of the economy is a bone of partisan contention, but perhaps if the present economic crisis lengthens and deepens (no matter which party is in power) then Americans will look past their innate moral intuitions a bit and unite in an attempt to do something about it.

Or perhaps not, in which case it would still behoove us to stop sometimes and try to look at things from our opponents’ point of view.


  1. This of course assumes that the outcome of political contests reflects the views of a large enough subset of voters, so that political leaders don’t owe their selection to a unrepresentative minority. For more on this point see my previous post discussing selectorate theory.

  2. For reasoning as argument and rationalization see Dan Sperber’s and Hugo Mercier’s theory of argumentative reasoning. For a good discussion of the need to overcome innate moral biases and seriously engage with one’s political opponents see Arnold Kling’s essay “The Tribal Mind: Moral Reasoning and Public Discourse”.

  3. Regarding libertarians as a separate political group, note that many other advanced democracies have “liberal democratic” parties (“liberal” here being used in the classical sense of Adam Smith and others) to go along with the main parties of the left and right. Thus, for example, the UK has the Liberal Democrats in addition to Labour and the Conservatives, Germany has the Free Democratic Party in addition to the Social Democratic Party and Christian Democratic Union, and so on.

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