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Born This Way


Collage by Gluekit  

But Jost believed there was something deeper to political identity, something that might explain why there has been so much continuity, and so little shape-shifting, in the politics of the modern West. Ever since French parliamentarians decided their seating arrangements in the eighteenth century, the two-way split between left (concerned with inequality and eager for social change) and right (guardians of tradition and satisfied with an uneven spread of resources) has remained remarkably constant across time and place. As new issues have emerged, opinions on them have lined up very neatly with the old patterns—patterns so consistent they cannot be arbitrary and so peculiar it’s hard to believe they are fully rational. Why in the American system were the people who opposed the death penalty almost always the ones who believed that rich people should pay more in taxes? Why are those concerned with Net neutrality the same people obsessed with local produce? Why do support for strong regulation of abortion and weak regulation of the financial sector seem to go together?

Jost wanted to find out and, with a group of colleagues, set off to map the psychological infrastructure of politics. They didn’t bother asking people about cap-and-trade or gun control, but focused on jazz, masturbation, and gardening. What they discovered was a series of contrasts: Conservatives approved of documentaries and going to bars; liberals looked favorably upon motorcycles and singing songs. In earlier studies, liberals had been shown to be unpredictable and uncontrolled, conservatives conscientious and trustworthy. Jost found that liberals embraced those considered outside the social mainstream, like lesbians, “street people,” and atheists; conservatives approved of fraternities and sororities, politicians, and Caucasians. Conservatives were fonder of children, liberals of professors. Among women, conservatives were more into sex; among men, Jost and his colleagues found the opposite.

They also visited the rooms of 76 UC-Berkeley students, along with a series of five nearby offices, and coded nearly every item in the rooms after quizzing the spaces’ inhabitants about their attitudes. Conservatives’ bedrooms had more laundry baskets, postage stamps, and sports memorabilia. Liberals had movie tickets and larger collections of CDs and books. Conservatives had calendars, flags, and ironing boards. Liberals had international maps, art supplies, and stationery. Conservative offices were less “stylish” and “comfortable”; liberal workplaces were more colorful. When Jost and his colleagues videotaped three-minute interviews with the students, then reviewed the tapes, the liberals were chattier, the conservatives withdrawn and cautious.

Jost’s goal wasn’t to confirm the cheap ideological caricatures of columnists—although the paper does a magnificent job of it—but to see what people’s not obviously political characteristics might explain about how their minds work. “As a general rule,” the authors wrote, “liberals are more open-minded in their pursuit of creativity, novelty, and diversity, whereas conservatives seek lives that are more orderly, conventional, and better organized.” Rare midlife conversions aside, our parties are groups of two different kinds of people, they said, divided not by class or geography or education but by temperament.

Until recently, merely looking to sort people into political types was taboo, with its hint of Nazi eugenics. In the thirties, German psychologist Ernst Jaensch had isolated traits—“definite, unambiguous … tough, masculine, firm”—that would help to identify good candidates for National Socialism. After the war, American researchers backed away from any suggestion that personal politics came with birth, leaving political scientists to mine social explanations instead. In so doing, political science insulated itself from the hard sciences, leaving the discipline inadvertently perched on a bizarre assumption: Politics was the only sphere of human existence immune to hereditary influence.

Other disciplines were less intimidated by taboo. In 1989, UC-Berkeley developmental psychologists Jack and Jeanne Block tracked down just over 100 23-year-olds they had closely observed two decades earlier. In the late sixties, the Blocks had identified a set of students at Bay Area nursery schools and assigned personality characteristics to each child based on his or her behavior, alone as well as in groups, as part of a study on creativity and self-esteem. Twenty years later, the Blocks went back and started talking to them about politics, comparing answers to the personality traits they had observed in their subjects as toddlers. They found that even in nursery schools, liberals had been self-reliant and resilient, able to develop close relationships and willing to easily cast off routine. The conservatives had been distrustful of others and anxious when facing uncertainty, quick to take offense and experience guilt. The Blocks felt they had found that the origins of adult partisanship manifest at an age often defined by its innocence to the world of politics.

If the Blocks’ sandbox profiling is right, it would mean that ideologies are not free-floating philosophies to which free agents can attach themselves but manifestations of deeply held personality traits. Conservatism might not be that thing defined by William F. Buckley or Edmund Burke but a primal condition by which people hedge against disorder or change they can’t otherwise control. Perhaps the clearest marker that Rudy Giuliani is a conservative is the fact that he can’t truck messiness. Others on the right have made more high-minded appeals to the gross-out standard: Leon Kass, who chaired George W. Bush’s Commission on Bioethics, has promoted “the wisdom of repugnance” as a key value in making policy around issues like cloning. “We have basic emotions set up to deal with these challenges, whether it’s fear or anger or disgust,” says Brown University political scientist Rose McDermott. “That predisposition affects whether they’re conservative or liberal because it helps them organize the world in a way that reduces their fear.”


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