Home > Uncategorized > A Response to “Your Genes Influence Your Political Views. So What?”

A Response to “Your Genes Influence Your Political Views. So What?”

No political science research program has grown faster, across more disciplines, and received more popular attention in the past decade than the biopolitics literature.  Research examining genetic links to political ideology, one’s partisan strength, and one’s likelihood of participating politically (but see here for a critique and here for a slight amendment) is standing alongside other work examining physiological correlates to political ideologythreat perception, and participation,  permeating political science and “hard science” academic journals.

Yesterday, Larry Bartels, an excellent scholar posting on the fantastic blog The Monkey Cage, asked what has become an increasingly pointed question to the biopolitics literature (he focuses only on genopolitics, but I suspect/assume he would stipulate that his argument applies to physiology and politics research as well):

So what?

Who cares if you have a genetic predisposition to be a liberal or if your heightened sensitivity to threat makes you more likely to support strong punishment for lawbreakers? Who cares if liberals tend to look at pleasant things and conservatives tend to look at scary things?

In my view, Bartels’ questions suffer from two major limitations that should give us pause before we dismiss biopolitics research as an accurate, but ultimately meaningless, parlor trick. The first limitation is that there are lots of reasons we might care about whether there are deeply-held individual differences, or perhaps an underlying construct(s), that systematically affect how we approach, encounter, and behave in the political world. The second limitation is that Bartels’ critiques about “genopolitics” could be leveled at most all other areas of research in the social sciences; that is, his complaints are not unique to biopolitics even though he only makes them about biopolitics.

I should note that I am a biased source. I spent five years on the faculty of the political science department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, have two papers under review that rely on the biopolitics perspective (one of which is co-authored with biopolitics pioneers John Hibbing and Kevin Smith and their students), and taught a biopolitics undergraduate research course. I’m biased in favor of considering the possibility that this work might be useful. So keep that in mind as you read.

First, Bartels asks,

If we could identify the genetic factors that make some people more likely than others to support abortion rights while opposing the death penalty, we could indeed “explain” why some people are more likely than others to support abortion rights while opposing the death penalty. But would doing so help us understand why that particular combination of views is more prevalent now than it was a generation ago? Or why support for the death penalty has declined substantially over the past 20 years? Or why abortion has been a more salient partisan issue in recent political campaigns? I don’t see how.

One piece of an answer to Bartels questions might be found in research examining assortative mating over time; that might produce more of these kinds of predisposed combinations of people.  I would suspect that this would be a smaller piece of the puzzle than explanations focusing on familial socialization, changing social mores, media coverage, and so forth, but that’s just one possibility. Perhaps combinations of threat sensitivity and disgust sensitivity (measured physiologically) across individuals would explain it as well.  If there are more people today who have a combination of high threat sensitivity (more likely to support the death penalty) but low disgust sensitivity (more likely to support gay rights), combinations like the ones Bartels asks about might be partially explained. More likely, one or more of these explanations interact with environmental factors like familial socialization, the formation of party coalitions, economic growth, or the widening of access to the political world to women and non-whites.

Bartels also notes that,

Pinning down the genetic bases of allegiance to a political ideology as it is defined at any given moment would leave the key creative role of what Hans Noel calls “the coalition merchants” still very much in the dark.

I think it is worthwhile to take this question seriously, especially as a big fan of Hans’ research.  Biological and physiological predispositions might help us understand why some coalitions are durable and others are not. Are coalitions that formed for short-term political expediency reasons not as likely to last when they have to bump up against people’s predispositions over and over again? What is the likelihood of a coalition surviving after one election when a particularly salient issue brought together what should be, biologically and physiologically speaking, an unlikely coalition (if indeed we can figure out what a biologically likely coalition would be)?  Genes play a role in shaping party strength, but not party ID, after all. Are coalitions that link together particular personality traits, physiological traits, or genetic characteristics more likely to last than others? Maybe so, maybe not, but that’s an empirical question I would love to see tackled in the coming years.

Note, this is NOT claiming that there is a liberal gene, a conservative gene, or that humans evolved to become polarized. It is to say that it is possible that different combinations of bedrock predispositions like threat perception, wariness of outsiders, and the like may combine in individuals in a variety of ways that might make some coalitions more likely to be durable than others.  Surely, there are lots of ways to be polarized and some fit people’s responses to threat, for instance, and some don’t. To me, it is worth it to figure out which is which. As Hans Noel points out this morning, we can’t know the genetic makeup of the man who delivered the “Cross of Gold” speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1896, nor can we learn the biological predispositions of his supporters and opponents, but we might be able to conceive of experiments where we take biological information we learn about people and see whether particular traits, constructs, etc. make cooperation more likely, association with out-groups more likely and so forth, especially under environmental manipulations like dealing with a highly salient issue, a large institutional impediment, and so forth.

Second, it seems as though Bartels is holding biopoltiics research to a higher standard than all other kinds of social science research. Bartels finds Fowler and Dawes’ defense of this kind of research “remarkably uninspiring” with respect to the authors’ suggestions about ways it can contribute to traditional political science.

One such suggestion is using genetic control variables in non-genetic research.  I can’t imagine Bartels being uninspired to include education, ideology, or partisanship as control variables in research. If a variable has a theoretical reason to be in a model and there are previous empirical demonstrations that the variable is (minimally) statistically significant and (even better) substantively significant, I have a hard time imagining the justification to keep that variable out of the model lest all of our other estimates be greatly biased and, plainly, have our model be wrong. Indeed, if a non-biological variable was discovered to explain the amount of variance some biological variables have been shown to explain in some circumstances, it would be very surprising indeed to see a blog post asking “so what?”

Bartels further asks, “But even if genopolitics allowed us to diagnose liberalism more quickly and reliably than an opinion survey, how would we “treat” it? This is not a standard we apply to the lion’s share of survey research. One can imagine non-survey researchers pouring cold water on the idea of creating the American National Election Study (ANES) by claiming that even if partisanship is shown to affect voting behavior, how could we treat partisanship or change it? Going further, we can’t change one’s age, race, or gender, so if those factors affect vote choice, civic engagement, or political knowledge, should we conclude that there’s nothing we can do about it and thus not study it?

Starting a national face-to-face cross-sectional survey (and regular panel studies) of 1,200-2,400 Americans from scratch is a lot of effort, but I wouldn’t argue (and I certainly don’t think Bartels would either) that the ANES “does not look worth the effort.” Most political scientists know little about biology, physiology, and even psychology – but most political scientists knew nothing of survey research in 1948. Now, one of the papers of mine I referenced above states, “Our results do not call into question the validity or future utility of traditional survey techniques but they do indicate that, by routinely excluding physiological information, knowledge of the public’s full response to various stimuli of interest is incomplete.”  In other words, I’m not forecasting that biopolitics research is likely to become as ubiquitous and far-reaching as survey research, but I am arguing that it is far more consequential than Bartels suggests.

Most importantly, it is quite likely that the biggest effects of biopolitics will be uncovered when they are interacted with tried and true variables that are measured in more traditional ways. Biological-environmental interactions have the potential to show us a great deal and I fear that a quick dismissal of biopolitics research because it isn’t immediately obvious how findings in the biopolitics literature might “matter” could prevent us from knowing things we want to know like:

  • Why do some people behave against their “biological type?”
  • What helps those who see the world in deep-seated, fundamentally different ways get along?
  • How can the stress of politics be reduced so that the anxious or ambivalent are more likely to choose to participate?

Though Campbell, Converse, Miller, and Stokes’ seminal research demonstrating the power and durability of partisanship in the classic book The American Voter was similarly dismissed by critics noting that the research was conducted during an abnormal period of partisan stability, I think Bartels is on much firmer ground in his skepticism that the current political alignment in the United States just so happens to match many of the conclusions the early returns on biopolitics research provide. He writes:

But wouldn’t it be a very convenient coincidence if politics and biology just happened to align at exactly the moment when political scientists became interested in genetic explanations? And what of nineteenth-century American politics, which was at least as intense and “polarized” as our own, but organized around quite different “bedrock divisions”?

To me, that is a very astute empirical question well worth the effort to explore.

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