Is Conservativism in the Genes?
Still smarting from the midterm elections? If you’ve ever wondered why it’s so hard for liberals to sustain success in the political arena, you might just blame the American gene pool. It’s a scary thought, but scientific research continues to produce new evidence that we human beings have less control over our thought processes, emotions and conduct than we long believed.
The latest indication of the role genetics plays in our behavior comes from a study at the University of California at San Diego and Harvard University, which claims that even our political attitudes are influenced by our genetic makeup. Our genes may actually have a significant role in determining whether we prefer to listen to Rush Limbaugh or tune in to Rachel Maddow.
The biological component of our political preferences is a dopamine receptor gene named DRD4 (not to be confused with Artoo-Detoo), the researchers report in The Journal of Politics. Dopamine, of course, is a neurotransmitter that controls the experience of pleasure and a yearning for novelty. Studying 2,000 subjects from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, the researchers matched genetic information with maps of the subjects’ social networks. It found that people (regardless of sex, ethnicity or age) who are born with a specific variant of the DRD4 gene were more likely to become politically liberal as adults.
The only catch is that, as a group, the subjects who became liberals also had an active social life in their teenage years, which led the researchers to report a nature/nurture link: “It is the crucial interaction of two factors—the genetic predisposition and the environmental condition of having many friends in adolescence—that is associated with being more liberal.”
I don’t know how that meshes with the reality that so many of us liberals were considered “geeks” in high school, though I will admit that I became more concerned with social issues after joining a church-sponsored youth group that did charity work in poor neighborhoods. That would fit in with the researchers’ finding that people with the appropriate genetic predisposition who also have a greater-than-average number of friends “would be exposed to a wider variety of social norms and lifestyles, which might make them more liberal than average.”
I have been convinced for some time that genetic makeup influences much more than our hair color, skin tone, and sexual orientation. Data increasingly has pointed to the role tiny molecules of DNA play in determining whether newborns will someday acquire certain diseases and whether they will grow up to become gamblers or sexual addicts. Combined with environmental or nurture factors, genes even seem to indicate the likelihood that a baby will develop into a well-adjusted member of society or a criminal sociopath. So, it does not shock me to hear new behavioral traits ascribed to factors beyond free will.
However, my first reaction to this new research is to throw up my hands in despair. If how people vote is anchored in genetic dopamine, recent political events would indicate that progressives don’t stand much of a chance of achieving long-lasting social change in America. The study might explain why so many working-class Americans, who have been struggling through the Great Recession, cast their ballots this fall not for a party that espouses economic equity for the less fortunate but in favor of one that seems to place a priority on protecting the interests of the wealthy. To that point, in a post-election appearance on Bill Maher’s show, conservative Bill O’Reilly sharply defined the difference between our two political parties: one promotes “social justice” and the other “believes in capitalism...in pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.”
If this autumn’s election results are any indication, too few Americans have the DRD4 variant. Being conservative should be defined as a deficiency in the brain. (It must be O’Reilly’s genetic imbalance that makes him use the term “social justice” in a derogatory manner.) Just as we would do if a vitamin insufficiency threatened our nation’s health, progressives need to mount a campaign for a publicly funded cure. And when confused liberals become so apathetic they don’t go to the polls—or, even worse—take a mood swing to the right, we need to provide federally funded DRD4 dopamine boosters. I believe that’s already part of the “Obama-Care” program, isn’t it?
I don’t mean to suggest that I’m in favor of unbridled meddling into our genetics. As scientists continue to discover more and more
personality traits that are programmed into our wiring, they are almost certain to find ways to modify them. Sure, it would be dandy to make conservatives more open-minded about the needs of their fellow man and, yes, it would be great to turn off genetic plugs to anti-social behavior. But we don’t want to lose all diversity. I mean, if I have a gene that makes me crave Asian food on a twice-a-week basis I don’t want everybody else to have the same yen. My favorite Thai and Vietnamese restaurants are busy enough already.
Somehow, despite genetics and other factors that may have contributed to a rough election for progressives, we continue to take some steps forward to a more fair-minded society. To end the year on a positive note, The Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund has announced that more openly LGBT candidates won election to public office in 2010 than in any year in American history. At least 106 of 164 candidates endorsed by the Fund were winners, including Providence, RI, Mayor David Cicilline, who will become the fourth openly gay Member of the U.S. Congress, and new Lexington, KY, Mayor Jim Gray. The list also includes Victoria Kolakowski, who was elected Superior Court judge in Alameda County, CA. She becomes the first openly transgender judge in America.
With that in mind, I wish you all a liberal helping of happiness during the holiday season and the courage to keep working for—shudder —“social justice” in the year to come.
PS: On a personal note, I’m excited to report that a list of the 10 Best Books of 2010 to date, compiled by veteran reviewer Amos Lassen for LambdaLiterary.org, includes my comic mystery novel Sawdust Confessions at # 8. It is an impressive list of LGBT books, including volumes of poetry and religious history, as well as fiction. I’m thankful that my campy little romp in the woods is included among them.
Bill Sievert can be reached via billsievert.blogspot.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.