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Born This Way

The new weird science of hardwired political identity.


Collage by Gluekit  

A few weeks before the 2008 election, Democratic strategists were running out of ideas for how to help Al Franken. His race against incumbent Minnesota senator Norm Coleman was a stubborn one: Even after some of the country’s highest ever per capita spending, the contest remained close, with a small number of undecided, seemingly unbudgeable voters.

The job of pollsters in these situations is to figure out who the undecided actually are and what could make them move. Often, they focus on demographics (playing to older suburban women) or issues (talk of school reform). But one pollster working for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Mark Mellman, felt it might pay to look for more primal distinctions.

Mellman added to his Minnesota polls a battery of questions inspired by research in psychology and neuroscience, borrowed from personality tests and designed to separate those with more rational processing systems from those who relied on emotion in their decision-making. Here polls did discern a latent split: Franken led Coleman by one point among those they identified as “feelers” but lagged by seven points among “thinkers.” The committee changed its ad strategy in response. Highly stylized television spots, like a movie spoof that showed Coleman as a fugitive fleeing George W. Bush, were replaced by messages that were “a little more flat, a little more factual, a little more sourced,” Mellman said. One defended Franken against Coleman’s charges with a calm narrator reading off a checklist of straightforward rebuttals under the words “The Truth.” Franken won, after a long recount, and in 2010 Mellman used the same battery of questions to shape media strategy for Harry Reid and Barbara Boxer.

That kind of science may seem alien to the war room, but Mellman’s hunch, that the differences in how people process politics may be more innate than we’ve thought, is becoming the default assumption in research labs worldwide. There, over the last decade or so, scientists have been extending to politics the imperious insights of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology that have so shaken other social sciences.

At the vanguard of this movement is Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist whose best-selling new book, The Righteous Mind, collects his own experiments—testing biases, prejudices, and ­preferences—and the work of like-minded colleagues to unmask much of our political “thinking” as moral instinct papered over, post facto, with ideological rationalization. We may tell ourselves that we believe welfare is just or that abortion violates the sanctity of life, but we’re really using borrowed language to express much more visceral attitudes, oriented around one of six moral dials—harm, fairness, loyalty, authority, liberty, and sanctity. Much of what passes for the daily scrum of electoral politics, he says, is merely an effort to find language that can help citizens justify these instincts. “Once people join a political team, they get ensnared in its moral matrix,” Haidt writes. “They see confirmation of their grand narrative everywhere.”

But the new science of primal politics goes quite a bit deeper than psychology. Over the past few years, researchers haven’t just tied basic character traits to liberalism and conservatism, they’ve begun to finger specific genes they say hard-wire those ideologies. If that work is to be believed, it would mean that an individual’s path to a political identity starts not with a series of choices but with long-ago genetic mutations, and that our collective experience of politics may be less a battle of ideas than a Darwinian contest in which we are all unwitting participants. After a team of geneticists claimed in a 2005 American Political Science Review article that they had evidence of DNA’s influence on politics, Duke political scientist Evan Charney rebutted that their findings “would require nothing less than a revision of our understanding of all of human history, much—if not most—of political science, sociology, anthropology, and psychology, as well as, perhaps, our understanding of what it means to be human.”

The thing most in need of revising may be our reflex for self-flattery. We revel in the idea that personal politics are perfectly deliberative, never more than in a year when Barack Obama and Mitt Romney—two dispassionate rationalists with great confidence in their skills of persuasion—will cross the country to win over their fellow citizens’ hearts and minds. But the comforting metaphor of a grand national debate to determine where the swing voters will end up has never seemed so out of sync with trending science. After all, what is the point of everything that happens between now and November 6 if our wiring dictates how we vote?

In 2006, as political scientists fixated on the country’s red-blue divide, NYU psychologist John Jost delivered a paper titled “The End of the End of Ideology.” For years, scholars had believed that the differences between liberals and conservatives were both trivial and superficial—that the two major American political parties weren’t all that far apart and that voters’ loyalties to them were simply arbitrary. Some had become convinced that people attached themselves to an ideology merely to assert their sophistication, picking a side to show they were capable of articulating a coherent worldview—that, as Haidt suggests, partisanship was merely an intellectual superstructure.


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