Your genes influence your political views. So what?

November 12, 2013

A small but active cottage industry has sprung up to explore the genetic bases of political attitudes and behavior. Studies of “genopolitics,” as the field has come to be called, are much more likely than conventional political science to turn up in Science or The New York Times Magazine. After all, unlike much of what we do, they look like real science, especially from a distance. But what will work of this sort really add to our understanding of politics? My own guess is, not much.

Thomas Edsall recently provided a characteristically smart and meaty introduction to “genopolitics,” quoting several prominent participants in academic debates regarding the scientific merits of genetic explanations of political attitudes and behavior, including John Alford, Evan Charney, William English, James Fowler, Peter Hatemi, John Hibbing, and Darren Schreiber.

However, the perspective in Edsall’s piece that resonates most strongly with me is that of a thoughtful bystander, Gary Jacobson. Invited to comment on the debate, Jacobson writes that “The evidence that there is a genetic influence on some [political] attitudes and behaviors seems quite strong.” But then he asks what Edsall refers to as “the key question”:

What we do with this knowledge is another matter. How do we look at public opinion differently knowing that some of what we measure has a genetic basis? I am not sure what the answer is.

Neither am I.

Edsall’s own attempt to answer Jacobson’s question suggests that “genopolitical analysis” could “add to the understanding of polarization” and “shed light on the logic of, say supporting abortion rights while opposing the death penalty.” In one sense, I suppose, that is right. 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.

John Zaller’s classic study of “The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion” posited a world of citizens predisposed, for no specified reason, to accept either liberal or conservative political messages. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that years or decades of genetic research allowed us to identify the genetic Magic Marker L that predisposed some people to accept liberal rather than conservative messages. Zaller’s theory would then be one step more elaborate, but no more useful for understanding the political phenomena it is constructed to explain — patterns of attitude consistency and opinion change in response to elite persuasion.

Moreover, as Zaller himself argued in a recent symposium on his book, the substantive content of ideology — the package of specific political attitudes that would be predicted by genetic Magic Marker L — is not a biological given, but a contingent product of political struggle:

If there is one thing that my ‘political education’ over the last 20 years has taught me, it is that one cannot tell a sensible story about public opinion and democracy in the United States without ascribing a central role to interest group and activist policy demanders. … An ideology is a set [of] policy positions recommended by informal coalitions of political pundits, intellectuals, and interest-group representatives. Although ideologies generally appeal to principles and values, they are not defined by them, but by what members of the informal coalition can agree on.

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.

Alford and Hibbing argue that “the nature of modern American politics, with ideologically based news outlets and open discussion of hot button social issues, now is free to reflect bedrock divisions. Fissures in the polity now match divisions in people’s biology.” Well, maybe. 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”?

In an article “In Defense of Genopolitics” published in the American Political Science Review last May, Fowler and Christopher Dawes offered a more plausible but remarkably uninspiring list of “interesting ways that genopolitics research may contribute to existing literatures in political science”:

  • “as a control variable in standard nongenetic studies”;
  • “as instrumental variables” (although “this approach faces many technical challenges, including credibly meeting the exclusion restrictions due to the possibility of pleiotropy”);
  • “to predict political traits using genetic data.” (They note that “A major goal of medical genetics is to diagnose and treat diseases before they can otherwise be detected.” But even if genopolitics allowed us to diagnose liberalism more quickly and reliably than an opinion survey, how would we “treat” it?)

 

My argument is not that genetic explanations of political attitudes and behavior are infeasible (though they are sure to be extremely difficult to achieve) or illegitimate (though it is easy to imagine them being harnessed to unsavory political ends). It is simply that the real scientific payoff does not look worth the effort.

Larry Bartels holds the May Werthan Shayne Chair of Public Policy and Social Science at Vanderbilt University. He has written extensively on American electoral politics, public opinion, representation, and public policy.
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Joshua Tucker · November 12, 2013