Fowler and his colleagues then went further to see if any of the 25,000 known human genes, which have been connected to conditions like dyslexia and depression, could be linked to political temperament. They concentrated on one of the first genetic variations to be connected with a particular personality type: DRD4-7R, a variant of the gene that encodes the brain’s dopamine receptors that had already been linked to novelty-seeking behavior. “It’s a reward system,” says Fowler. “It lights up when we eat chocolate or have sex or do cocaine. It’s the system that goes haywire when people have gambling addictions.” Fowler thought back to the personality studies by Jost and others that presented “openness” and “novelty-seeking” as liberal traits. If dopamine levels made someone more likely to go bungee-jumping, why wouldn’t they also lead him or her to a political party less guided by tradition?
To test the hypothesis, Fowler and his colleagues had to identify a group of liberals and see whether they were more likely to carry two copies of DRD4-7R. In the data from a previous study, he found 2,574 people identified as DRD4 carriers who had been asked about their politics and placed on a political continuum. There was not a direct connection between the gene and ideology, Fowler and his colleagues found, but when the researchers also looked at the number of friends the subjects had had in high school (one of the survey questions asked), they did find a strong tie. People with the genetic variant who had lively adolescent social lives were more likely to consider themselves liberal as young adults.
Even so, Fowler laughs at the idea that he had isolated a single gene responsible for liberalism—an idea circulated in much of the chatter about the study. “There are hundreds if not thousands of genes that are all interacting to affect complex social behaviors,” Fowler says, and scientists have only a rough sense of that process. “There’s a really long, complex causal chain at work here,” says UC-Berkeley political scientist Laura Stoker, “and we won’t get any real understanding without hundreds and hundreds of years’ more research.”
But a century is a long time to wait. The media coverage of Fowler’s “liberal gene” (“Don’t hold liberals responsible for their opinion—they can’t help themselves,” reported Foxnews.com) demonstrated just how much of an appetite there might be for teasing out the election-year implications of the new biological determinism. Should Republican strategists be activating conservative attitudes by reminding the base of the things that repulse them (maggots, Bill Clinton)? Would Democrats be smart to run their voter-registration drives near slot machines and bungee jumps? Is there something in the biological makeup of politicians like Obama and Romney that seems to make them more malleable than the people whose votes they want to win? (Now that we have the birth certificate, we’ll need a DNA swab.) Why does Romney seem quick to shift positions on the moral issues that should be most hardwired but faithful on the economic ones with weaker genetic inheritance? Does the fact that he’s a flip-flopper also mean he’s a robot? And what’s the deal with Obama’s bipartisan fetish, anyway—is that some kind of freak genetic mutation? Or further evidence that he’s hiding, as Romney would have it, a more sinister atavistic agenda? Instead of exalting independents, should we treat their lack of discernible ideology as evidence of their underdevelopment? And do Americans not have a third party because the laws of evolution won’t let one survive?
An election season’s arrival quickly sweeps away any such sense of political fatalism. Every four years, we treat our presidential campaign as an exercise in Tocquevillean political free will, 200 million Americans questioning their individual beliefs and national priorities unencumbered by lineage or patrimony. We rearrange our civic life around the cult of the ideologically unmoored voter—once called ticket-splitters, then swing voters, now just independents. But daily shifts in Biden’s language or Romney’s policy positions or the imagery of super-PAC ads are only worth the attention we lavish on them if they’re being judged by a perfectly open-minded electorate.
“You can be the best campaign, but if someone is genetically predisposed against being affected by it, you’re not going to make much of a difference,” says Fordham political scientist Costas Panagopoulos, former editor-in-chief of the trade magazine Campaigns & Elections. Even if the genetic studies don’t suggest that votes are truly automatic, efforts to get conservative Catholic union members to vote for Obama or liberal stockbrokers for Mitt Romney may be more doomed than we want to believe. Of course, we have long appreciated the role played by one biological predictor: the gender gap, which has become the most popular way to explain Obama’s lead over Romney as we head into the fall campaign.
Indeed, whatever we make of the academic breakthroughs in understanding the role of evolutionary psychology in politics, the old heuristics may have to suffice for now. Parties and candidates have few practical tools to sort voters into new biological categories and little sophisticated understanding of how to leverage any new insight. “It’s hard to put that on a survey,” notes Will Feltus, a Republican consultant who uses statistical modeling to advise campaigns on how to target their television buys. “ ‘I just have a few questions about your genetics. Which of the following genetic sequences is closest to your own?’ ”
It is easy to imagine that more data on how brains and bodies process political messages might just gussy up the logic of the red-blue divide with a scientistic certitude. Campaigns would be even more convinced that the people who are not for them today will never be for them and redouble resources on rousing the voters they know to be on their side and give up on trying to change minds. “For what I do, finding out whether someone is the way they are from childhood doesn’t help me a whole lot. I am being paid to tell politicians where people are, how changeable they can be within a twelve-to-eighteen-month period,” says Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who worked on Jon Huntsman’s presidential campaign. “It’s just numbers. How many people are in this group, how many people are in that group, and how many people do you have to add to get to 50 percent?”